This week, I said goodbye to sugar with the hope of saying hello to a healthier me. I covered a bit about sugar in my Biology degree, but I think I could have studied it for the whole 3 years and there’d still be mounds left to cover. Let’s start by looking at what sugar is:
Sugar broken down
Sugars are the carbohydrates (a term that incorporates sugars, starches and fibers) that end in ‘ose’. (I love that a suggested name for vitamin C, which is structurally related to glucose, was ‘godnose’ because they didn’t know what molecule it was at the time). Glucose and fructose are monosaccharides (they contain one sugar unit) and are the building blocks for sucrose, a disaccharide (di = two: one glucose and one fructose). The body prefers to use glucose out of these three sugars as its energy source, and every cell is capable of using the glucose that is converted from the carbohydrates we eat. Secretion of the hormone insulin from beta cells in the pancreas is stimulated mainly by glucose. Fructose, on the other hand, is processed by the liver and, if there’s too much for it to cope with, it will convert it into fat.
So we need sugar. But why are high levels so bad for us:
The peaks and crashes
Too much glucose in your blood is toxic to your brain cells, can damage vessels (leading to all sorts of diseases), cause dehydration and it even damages those beta cells that ensure that levels don’t get too high. So, after consuming lots of sugar, our bodies work hard to reduce amounts of it in the blood: we get a spike in our insulin levels, signalling certain cells to take up the sugar and store it. This is followed by a ‘crash’, where our levels of blood sugar are low, because there’s a delay in telling those beta cells to quit with the insulin. This crash is linked with signs such as lethargy, irritability and even hunger. Rather than being on this sugar-fuelled rollercoaster, it’s in our interest to keep blood-sugar levels more constant so that we can enjoy the ride.
Sugar and obesity
Sugar, and mainly glucose, is the main fuel that we use for energy. But when we eat more ‘energy’ than we use (this includes all sources of energy – not just sugar itself), the liver converts it into fat, which is then stored in cells.
Sugar and immunity
Vitamin C is required by white blood cells – knights that travel around in your blood fighting infection. It’s been argued that sugar reduces the function of these cells by competing with vitamin C in white blood cells. I’ve also read suggestions that white blood cells are less effective after eating sugar because they’re busy fighting the inflammatory effects that the sugar-hit has caused in your body. Either way, if you want a stronger immune system it looks like cutting down on sugar is a good way to get it.
Sugar and mood
Sugar is like a drug. It can give you that ‘high’, where endorphins (‘happy hormones’) are produced, but then, along with your blood-glucose levels, you come plummeting back down, with cortisol – the stress hormone – being produced in the ‘crashes’. Again, you’re on a rollercoaster, which is no good for a stable and healthy mood. An interesting thing to note is that our bodies also produce endorphins when we exercise, yet very few of us reach for our trainers rather than chocolate for that high when we feel stressed or down.
Sugar and sweet, sweet sleep
A recent study at Columbia University has suggested that people who eat more sugar have more interruptions of sleep during the night. Not to mention the sleep problems associated with obesity.
Sugar and your skin
When I have a sugar binge, my skin suffers in terms of breakouts. I’m sure there’s a direct correlation. But sugar can be responsible for ageing our skin too. Elastin and collagen are two important proteins in keeping our skin looking plump and firm. But sugar stops them doing their job properly, meaning that wrinkles appear more easily and skin is less plump. It also changes the proportion of different types of collagen in the skin, making it thinner and more prone to damage from outside – UV rays and the environment. So, rather than buying expensive creams to keep the signs of getting older at bay (the effectiveness of which is hampered by sugar), why not give up sugar?
I’ve only covered some of the bad effects that sugar can have on our health. I’ve not even mentioned diabetes or heart disease! Just going by these though, it looks like it’d be beneficial to cut down on sugar. But are we just talking about refined sugar? What about natural sugar in fruit, for example? Well, we still need to monitor how much of this we load our bodies with if we’re to avoid the bad effects mentioned above. Don’t assume that a glass of orange juice is healthy for you just because it has a fruit in the title – it’s packed full of sugar only without the fiber of whole fruit that can help alleviate the rapid rise in blood sugar.
Sugar is everywhere
Soup, pasta sauces, low-fat products – these can all have ‘hidden’ sugars. Check out the back of packets to find them. The best way to avoid them is cooking from scratch and knowing exactly what’s going into your food.
But sugar tastes so good!
Can alternatives really compete? I tried sweet potato brownies from ‘The Sugar-free Kitchen’ cookbook, and was pleasantly surprised. They were still tasty and gooey. Are sweet potato brownies as good as the chocolate-packed ones Nigella makes? In a word, no. Not even close. But they’re so, so, so much more healthy!
How do I feel? Honestly, not much different, although I think there’s been a slight improvement in mood. But it’s early days – I’m not going to keep blocking sugar out completely (like sugar does to vitamin C on white blood cells), but I’ll try to go for healthier alternatives most of the time. I think the important thing is to be more aware of what we’re putting in our bodies. Even little steps, like putting less sugar in your tea, are great. You are what you eat. Think of your body as being a garden – if you want it to be healthy, you look after it and plant healthy plants in it, not bags of sugar.