Our bodies can obtain energy from fat and protein, but we run most easily on carbohydrates. When we eat complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, pulses, vegetables and fruit, we benefit from a diet that is highly nutritious and good for our digestive system. Energy is released gradually as it is required.
The sweet taste of carbohydrates is appealing to us as most sweet foods in nature are safe. Now that we have discovered how to extract this sugary element from the rest of the food, it is easy to feed our natural addiction. As a result, our basic diets are often so highly refined that our bodies are forced to digest foods for which they were not designed.
This is not good for us. In response to this sugar rush our bodies release large quantities of insulin. This hormone quickly converts the sugar into glycogen and fat, ready for use at a later date. Unfortunately, this process relies on a complicated cycle of feedback within our bloodstream and our bodies invariably over-react to the influx of sugar. In a short time, our blood sugar levels have changed from high to low and this initial surge of energy has turned into lethargy and fatigue.
Over the long term, we can literally run out of insulin or become insensitive to it. This leads to a condition called diabetes, where blood sugar levels remain consistently high if left untreated.
So sugar and processed foods are not good for either our short term or long term health. Specifically:
1. Sugar provides empty calories. It gives us energy but with no nutritional value to support our many body systems. As it is easy to digest, it is possible to consume excessive calories without feeling full.
2. Refined foods such as white bread, some cereals and white rice cause a similar rise in blood sugar levels. The refinement process has effectively part-digested the food before we eat it.
3. As excess sugar is partly stored as fat, a diet high in sugar can lead to obesity and heart disease.
4. After a sugary meal, the insulin released can lead to low blood sugar – a condition known as hypoglycaemia. This produces a wide range of symptoms, including hunger, fatigue, poor concentration, nervous irritability, dizziness, depression and headaches.
5. Sugar is the primary food source of unwelcome guests that may lurk in our digestive tract, such as unhealthy bacteria and parasites. It also feeds the candida fungus that lives within us all to some extent. A diet high in sugar and refined foods can cause imbalance in this delicate internal environment and aggravate existing conditions.
6. Alcohol and other stimulants such as tea, coffee, soft drinks and cigarettes force the body to release adrenaline and other stress hormones. Our basic instincts – formed thousands of years ago – encourage the release of sugar into the bloodstream to help the muscles cope with whatever ‘fight or flight’ challenges lie ahead. As modern stresses rarely require a physical response, our bodies must undergo a frantic internal battle to stabilise our blood sugar.
7. Finally, it is important to remember that fruit is not as bad for blood sugar levels as you might expect. Its sweetness is based on a sugar called fructose, which must be converted into glucose before becoming available for use. This metabolic conversion ensures that the increase in blood sugar is gradual and manageable.
So how do I reduce my sugar intake ?
1. Follow a diet high in whole foods such as whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, fruit and vegetables. Do not overcook these foods as this removes key nutrients and makes the final product too easy to digest.
2. Avoid refined and sweetened foods. When buying bread and rice, choose brown rather than white.
3. Dilute fruit juices with water and avoid dried fruits if possible.