Sugar is currently tying with carbs for first place in the race for 'most health damaging substance'. Are you a sugar addict? Do you understand what it does to your body? And could you really give it up even if you did?
The vast majority of what we consume is drenched in sugar, hidden in the processed foods we eat or flagrantly flaunted in the cakes, sandwiches and doughnuts of our increasingly coffee shop-dwelling lives. And you may pat yourself on the back for having escaped the addictions that so many struggle with, but while alcohol, smoking and drugs are the 'recognised' faces of addiction, sugar escapes that label, socially acceptable in vast quantities yet just as addictive and incredibly bad for your health.
Sugar - how to identify the different types
The sugar in our sugar bowls is a carbohydrate, half glucose and half fructose and it's the fructose that is particularly bad for you. Sugar is found naturally in most fruits and vegetables, but the mass market product that we spoon into our daily cups of tea or coffee is usually either made from sugar cane or sugar beet. In the old days, the majority of UK sugar was shipped across the seas from far off Caribbean sugar plantations. Nowadays, most of it comes from sugar beets and, particularly in the States, much of it is genetically modified.
Did you know that that bowl of pasta or slice of toast for breakfast is quickly turned into liquid sugar in your gut? Are you sending your child off to school with a tummy full of Frosties or Cheerios? You are effectively giving them a sugar injection to start their day.
Do they have a sandwich for lunch and a Mars bar or KitKat to 'keep them going' through the afternoon? Is there a fizzy drinks machine in their school hallway? Yet more sugar that spikes their energy and then just as quickly plunges it down. Sugar addiction starts early, and usually silently, surreptitiously, making it especially hard for any of us to escape. A pint of beer or a couple of glasses of wine break down into sugar just as effectively as the chocolate cake or bowl of ice cream that you 'know' is bad for you.
The worst of them all is the high fructose corn syrup that is sneaking its way into the majority of supermarket tins and packaged goods, the bowls of crisps and tacos, Twiglets and popcorn that many of us reach for at the end of a long day.
What does sugar do to our bodies?
As more and more people eat processed foods, the hidden sugar in the biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks and packaged meals takes its toll on all our health. It causes blood sugar levels to spike and crash, eventually delivering you into the jaws of diabetes and all the health issues that it brings. Overdosing on sugar can raise your cholesterol and give you fatty liver in just a few weeks. Cancer cells love sugar, so eating large quantities over a long period of time is definitely not a good idea, and a habit that needs to be broken if you are aiming for a healthy, happy older age.
How to quit sugar
You need determination and stamina, but follow these simple rules, and quit it you can.
1. Track your sugar consumption
Getting out of the habit Is a question of re-training your palate, and that can take time. Keep a food diary and notice how much you are eating. Then, reduce the amount by cutting out what you can.
After a few weeks you just won't want to eat anything that's too sugary and your taste buds will crave simpler foods. You will be able to taste the flavours in fresh fruit and vegetables for the first time in years and your shopping habits will change. Sugar Smart is an easy to use app that lets you scan your favourite supermarket buys and will give you the sugar content of each item, alongside what your consumption should be, based on your age.
2. Switch to natural, unprocessed sugars
If you are looking for a 'natural' sugar, always check the back of the packet. Makers of organic sugar, non GMO, or brown sugar usually list those facts. If it just says 'sugar', be careful. But bear in mind that organic or not, brown or white, less or more processed, the contents of all these products is the same - a combination of fructose and sucrose that is quite simply bad for you.
Stevia is the healthy sugar replacement option. It is a small green leaf that is 200 times sweeter than sugar, so use it sparingly. It has been found to balance your blood sugar levels and boost your metabolism, so unlike its blood spiking unhealthy cousin, it loses you weight rather than helping to pile on the pounds. Make sure you buy the crushed up green powder rather than the highly processed white stevia. Use it in your cooking, or in a cup of tea. You won't be able to tell the difference.
3. The truth about agave nectar
You may think that Agave nectar is good for you, but it definitely isn't, so don't fall for their marketing pitch. It may be low on the Glycemic Index charts but it has very high levels of fructose, which leads to insulin resistance and on to diabetes. Do not pour it on everything, thinking you are being super healthy. A far better tactic would be to throw it in the bin, alongside its other dubious healthy sugar friends, honey and coconut sugar.
4. What about honey?
Honey was extolled by Barbara Cartland back in the day for its rejuvenative and healing properties. She may well have been collecting wild honey from hives in the hills in a far off corner of the world but if you watch any films on today's bee industry (which is a sad story for another time) you will see that vast amounts of white sugar are poured into the hives to speed up production. Today, normal table honey is about 70% sugar by weight, and will do very little to improve your health. Less is now sadly very much more in health terms.
Manuka honey is the exception to this rule. It contains 4x the nutritional benefits of even the most pure unadulterated flower honeys and anecdotally works wonders with allergies, sore throats, sinus problems and IBS. Manuka honey is one of natures medicines. Keep an eye out for the UMF mark (Unique Manuka factor) that marks it genuine and measures the antibacterial strength of that particular jar. To be effective, the number should be 10 or higher. Levels of UMF 16 plus are best (and most expensive) but you don't need more than a teaspoon at a time for optimal healing.
5. Maple syrup - nutritionally beneficial
And if you just can't live without sweetness, and want to salve your conscience by finding a (slightly) less bad option, consider maple syrup or maple sugar, natural compounds from the maple tree which also contain high(ish) levels of potassium, calcium and magnesium. As the sugar from sugar cane has precisely zero of all three you can kid yourself that by eating maple syrup you are being healthy!
Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's largest breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health.
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