Are occasional treats becoming a regular habit? Those sugar spikes could be wrecking more than just your waistline…
You don’t have to be Jamie Oliver to know sugar is public enemy number one; it’s addictive, it ruins teeth, and it’s in the frame for our population’s obesity epidemic. But even if sweets and fizzy drinks are guilty of heinous crimes against public health, is sugar really harming a healthy eater like you? Quite possibly.
Imagine a delicate set of balance scales, the kind jewellers once used to precisely measure the carats of a diamond. Your pancreas is such an instrument, monitoring the tiny changes in your blood’s glucose concentration and stabilising them with precise releases of insulin. We know that eating sugar sends our blood sugar spiking, essentially dumping a heavy load on these finely-balanced scales, so ditch the sugary foods and you’re sorted, right? “Sort of, but it’s not necessarily just the sugar we eat that causes an issue,” says nutritionist Dr Michelle Braude (thefoodeffect.co.uk). “All carbohydrates, including fruit and vegetables, have an impact on our blood sugar levels. So to be more specific, it’s the effect of any foods we eat on our glucose levels in the blood.
“Simple carbohydrates, such as sweets, cakes, cookies, sugary drinks and sodas are made up of one to two sugar molecules and are broken down and digested very quickly due to their simple structure,” Michelle points out. “This tends to elevate blood sugar levels just as quickly. When consumed, these foods are rapidly converted to sugars, which are directly absorbed in the blood in the form of glucose, leading to rapidly elevated blood sugar levels. The glucose provides instant energy but if not burned or used up (which it rarely is, unless these foods are consumed right before a workout), they are converted to, and stored as, fat – leading to weight gain, as well as leaving us feeling groggy and awful.”
This spiking, if a regular occurrence, creates another problem. When raised insulin levels are the norm the whole system enters a ‘firefighting’ state. Inflammation, your body’s alarm bells, becomes a constant presence and the sensitivity of cells to insulin is blunted. “When we look at many diseases – heart disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes, even cancer – a very good amount of evidence shows there are two root causes: insulin resistance, and inflammation,” says Dr Aseem Malhotra. As a consultant cardiologist with the NHS, Aseem is on the sharp end of an inflammation epidemic. “Heart disease in an inflammatory disease,” he states. “It’s not caused by saturated fat; that’s complete and total nonsense. For years we’ve loaded up on refined carbs believing the risk is all about cholesterol, and that’s wrong, and harmful.
It’s driving type 2 diabetes and obesity and if you have insulin resistance or type two diabetes refined carbs and sugar are the foods that are going to increase your glucose levels more than anything else.”
Aseem’s research has taken him to the southern Italian village of Pioppi, home to one of the world’s healthiest populations and inspiration for the hottest health controversy of our times. It was here, in the 1950s, that American physiologist Ancel Keys made the now-famous link between the Mediterranean diet and low levels of cardiovascular disease. “Ancel Keys got a lot right,” says Aseem, “but he implicated the consumption of saturated fat with heart disease. We now know that’s incorrect; it’s been completely disproven. We now know the issue was sugar. His conclusion – that dietary fat promoted high cholesterol, which caused heart disease – created a whole industry of low-fat, high-sugar products and as a result we have rocketing obesity levels.”
In his new book, The Pioppi Diet, (£8.99, Michael Joseph) Aseem recommends a traditional Mediterranean diet, based on the ‘deep science’ of what such regions really eat, rather than our hackneyed view of Italian life. “In the traditional diet of Pioppi and across Italy, pasta and pizza were never a main course,” he points out. “Pasta is always served as a starter in small amounts; we’ve bastardised it in the Western diet. In Italy pizza is eaten once or twice a month, but what do we do here? I see patients with heart attacks who eat pizza two or three times a week. We load up on refined carbs believing the risk is all about cholesterol, and that’s wrong, and harmful. It’s driving type 2 diabetes and obesity.” So is there a silver bullet to stabilise our blood glucose levels? “There is,” says Aseem. “Overall the best and most consistent evidence is lots of veg, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and oily fish; these foods have anti-inflammatory properties.”
Aseem also believes the Pioppi lifestyle, which help the population age healthily and without the medications and interventions common in our society, can offer more than just diet. “We know that keeping moving does reduce insulin resistance. There’s no need to pound away on the treadmill but remaining moderately active is important. Just being outside and walking will reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes so in terms of blood sugar it’s a help. Also we don’t always make sleep a priority but we absolutely should. Are you getting seven hours sleep a night? If not why not? Lack of proper sleep is linked with stress, which is related to poor eating habits.”
And eating well is about good choices, not self-denial. “Complex carbohydrates don’t have the same negative effects as simple carbs,” says Michelle. “Examples include brown rice, sweet potatoes, rolled oats and wholemeal bread. These are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules than simple carbs, and take longer to break down, requiring more time for digestion. This slows down the breakdown process, and supplies us with sustained energy and increased satiety, for a longer period of time. Since these carbohydrates require more time for conversion, they are constantly used up by the body and are not immediately converted to, or stored as fat – so there’s no need to avoid these healthy carbs!”
So what about cravings? “Don’t even be tempted by pure fruit juice or adding sugar to your tea or coffee,” says Michelle, “as this peaks your blood sugar levels just as much as a can of cola.” But fruit juices are a convenient source of vitamins, no? “Fruit juices cause a completely different reaction in the body compared to eating fresh fruit,” she points out. “They can easily contain more sugar than you should consume at once, so if you drink too many of them you may be fighting sugar cravings for an entire day. Fruit juice is basically sugared water with all the fibre from the fruit extracted, and very little vitamin and mineral content remaining. I’d never recommend avoiding fresh fruit, but fruit juice is an entirely different story! You’re far better off eating fresh fruit, to satisfy sweet cravings naturally, whilst keeping you full on fewer calories with a good amount of fibre.”
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