Is sugar a friend or a foe?
Feeling a bit faint? Quick! Have a piece of cake and add some sugar to your coffee! Or perhaps not? Mopani Pharmacy Responsible Pharmacist Neil van der Spuy explains why you might want to opt for a sugar-free snack instead.
Q: What is beneficial about sugar?
Firstly, when it comes to sugar, serving size and also the origin of the sugar is very important. Our bodies uses glucose, the broken down form of sugar, as an energy source and for all normal functions. All carbohydrates, once eaten, are converted into glucose during digestion. Carbs are the part in food that is digested most quickly. It gives you energy rapidly and cause a quick raise in blood-sugar. Natural sugar derived from fruit (fructose) is seen as healthier than processed or refined sugar which you find in soft drinks and most sweets. It is the added sugars that gives no beneficial nutrients (just energy) and in excess can impact on our health.
Q: Does sugar have any other negatives besides weight-gain and diabetes?
A: If unmonitored, your sugar intake can really cause havoc in your body. It may cause;
- Glucose levels to spike and plummet
- Added risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease
- Affected immune system
- A chromium deficiency
- Accelerated aging
- Tooth decay and gum disease, which can then lead to heart disease
- Affected cognition in children
- Increased stress
- Replacement of important nutrients in the diet
- Increased inflammation on the skin, therefore linked to acne
- Increased chance of cancer – Too much sugar can lead to obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for cancer
- Added risk of depression
- Fatty liver
Read more: Heart your heart – Watch your cholesterol
Q: Can you live without any added sugar in your diet?
A: The easy answer is yes. You can live without any processed or refined sugar. However, you will need the natural sugars found in fruits, vegetables and dairy.
Q: What is the difference between insulin resistance / underproduction / hypoglycaemia / diabetes?
Let’s first start by defining insulin: Insulin is a regulatory hormone that is secreted by the pancreas to lower blood-sugar levels.
- Insulin resistance is the ineffectiveness of cells within the body to use insulin optimally. Insulin resistance can cause type 2 diabetes. It usually presents itself in those who consume high amounts of sugar and low amounts of fibre and can happen to any one at any age. More and more children however are diagnosed, largely due to children being overweight or obese.
- Underproduction of insulin is when the pancreas is unable to produce the desired amount of insulin to lower blood-sugar levels. This usually occurs when the body’s own immune system is attacking the pancreas. This is may happen due to some autoimmune conditions or viral infections such as mumps or rubella. It often presents itself in childhood. This causes type 1 diabetes.
- Hypoglycaemia is the abnormal state of having low blood-sugar, normally caused by over production of insulin. This is sometimes a side-effect of treatment of diabetes. Therefore, diabetics should consult their doctors immediately to adjust treatment, should they feel unwell for extended periods. The condition may however also occur due to hormone imbalances, eating disorders and under medical conditions.
- Diabetes can can be defined by not having enough insulin produced by the body or the body’s inability to respond to the increase of insulin. Type 1 is known as insulin dependent and needs to be monitored very closely. Type 2 is usually controlled by some medication and a healthy diet.
Q: If you stop using sugar, how will this impact your metabolism / insulin resistance / production?
A: It is an “easy” source of energy, meaning that if you need energy as soon as possible, refined sugars is the way out. The catch is that the unused sugars are stored as fats. If you would cut out refined sugars, your body will use stored fat as energy. Without any sugar intake, your production of insulin would automatically decrease and cause your body to be more sensitive to insulin. Your body will adjust, but you may have some symptoms of hypoglycaemia for the first few days until your body has adjusted. To minimalise this effect, cut down gradually.
Q: Are there any health risks to using artificial sweeteners / alternatives?
Yes, unfortunately, there is. One of the most artificial sweeteners used is Aspartame. It is highly toxic when used in high doses and can cause side effects from headache and blurry vision straight through to seizures and heart problems.
It is important to always read the ingredients of sugar alternatives and try as far as possible to avoid Aspartame. Unfortunately, most diet and sugar-free carbonated drinks contain Aspartame.
Those with underlying medical conditions and chronic medications should consult our Mopani staff to determine if Aspartame is contra-indicated. Note that each person may metabolise Aspartame differently.
Xylitol is normally the preferred alternative but too much can also have a laxative effect.
Q: Which artificial sweetener can you use when baking?
A: Xylitol is normally used but only in moderation.
Q: Does the portioning remain the same as when you would use sugar?
Yes. Most artificial sweeteners use sugar as comparison on how “sweet” it is. For instance, one sachet of stevia will have the same “sweetness” as one sachet of sugar.
Q: What common item everyone consumes has the most sugar in it?
I would say carbonated soft drinks and fruit juices, and also sauces like ketchup and BBQ sauce. Be aware of the amount of sugar in food items given to children, it is one of the main reasons for the increase in diabetes and insulin resistance in young adults.
Quick tip: Read the label on all foods and drinks. Ingredients on a packaged food are listed in descending order in terms of weight, so when you see these names at the top of the ingredients list, the product contains a lot of sugar.
Q: Who would benefit the most from sugar-free diets in general?
The answer will be diabetic and cancer patients, although they already have an adjusted diet. Personally, I think any person struggling to lose weight and also a person with a Body Mass Index (BMI) above 25 should try sugar-free options.
My conclusion is that refined and processed sugars are a danger to health and has side effects that has little or no nutritional value. Stick to natural and unprocessed sugars. Try to eat more fruits, vegetables and diary and keep everything in moderation. The type of sugar is just as important because the brain does need it for normal functioning.
If you want to try sugar-free and healthier food options, ask our staff at Mopani for assistance or shop our health food section online!