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Sugar. Is it really the new tobacco? How does 'diet food' make us fat?

If you are confused about what to eat for your HEALTH, your ability to manage your WEIGHT, or both, then this series of blogs is for you.

My aim, as both a fitness professional, and somebody who just cares, is to help debunk the maze of nutritional information that bombards us every day through media, internet, news and general chit chat. The hot topic for this blog is SUGAR, is it really the new tobacco and how might ‘diet’ foods make us fat?

In January 2014 the British Media run a headline, 'Sugar, the New Tobacco'. The New York Daily News called it 'White Poison'. It's not difficult to understand that too many biscuits, doughnuts, sweets and soft drinks make us fat but, is sugar really as damaging to our health as tobacco? In order to attempt to answer this question, we need to first understand how sugar came to have such dominance in our modern diet and what has happened to the health and waistlines of our nation as a result.

Back in the 1970's, the Low Fat movement took hold. We were told that too much fat would clog our arteries, raise our cholesterol levels and that it was the cause of rising levels of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) and Obesity.

Based on the science of the day, National Dietary guidelines strongly recommended that we cut back on fat, particularly the saturated kind such as butter, cheese and cream. We were told to stop frying our food and opt for 'low fat' versions of our popular food brands. Diet books and slimming clubs, understandably followed suit and food manufacturers eagerly adapted their offerings by reducing the fat content in their foods in line with government recommendations.

There was, however, a problem with low fat food and that was that it tasted pretty awful. In order to please our taste buds, food manufacturers replaced fat with sugar. It then became easy to buy a 'low fat', 'light' or 'skinny' version of just about anything. Consequently, we thought that we are making healthier choices.

The question is, did any of this advice help to reduce the increasing rates of obesity? Did it help to reduce increasing rates of heart disease?, Did it halt rising levels of Type 2 Diabetes and other metabolic disorders?, Sadly, the answer is NO! In fact, ALL of these conditions have risen sharply in line with sugar consumption. So, did we get it wrong? What if the 'low fat' movement was based on flawed science of the day? That question will be addressed in my next blog so, for now, let's look at the impact that ever increasing volumes of sugar are having on our health and fat stores.

In 2014, our average sugar consumption is 454g per person, per week. That's the equivalent of approximately 16 teaspoons of sugar a day! It's clear that, as a nation, we are consuming way more sugar than our bodies are equipped to handle.

At the time of writing this blog, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is considering recommending that we reduce our recommended sugar intake from 10 teaspoons a day to just 5. Just to put that into context, let's look at the approximate hidden sugar content in some popular foods. WARNING, this may surprise you, especially if you are a fan of so called 'diet' foods. Remember the new recommendations are likely to recommend limiting intake to 5 teaspoons per day.

Fast Food:

  •     A can of Cola has 10 teaspoons of sugar
  •     A McDonald’s medium chocolate milkshake contains 10 teaspoons of sugar
  •     A Mars Bar has 5 teaspoons of sugar
  •     2 finger Twix chocolate bar has 9.5 teaspoons sugar
  •     Cocoa pops (30g portion) has 10.5 teaspoons of sugar
  •     A typical serving of ketchup has almost 1 teaspoon of sugar
  •     A McDonalds Big Mac has 2.5 teaspoons of sugar (most of which is High Fructose Corn Syrup in the bun to extend shelf life)

Healthy options?

Special K cereal (30g Portion) has 1.5 teaspoons of sugar

  •     Bran Flakes (30g portion) has 6.5 teaspoons of sugar
  •     An average serving of Baked Beans has 3.5 teaspoons of sugar
  •     A typical low fat fruit yogurt has 6.5 teaspoons of sugar
  •     Each slice of wholemeal or multigrain bread has 1/2 teaspoon of sugar
  •     One serving of low fat coleslaw has 1 teaspoon of sugar
  •     Full fat peanut butter has around 4g sugar per 100g
  •     Reduced fat peanut butter has more than triple that at 15g sugar per 100g

Popular Drinks and snacks:

  • 500ml freshly squeezed orange juice 12 teaspoons of sugar
  • Innocent smoothie 8.5 teaspoons of sugar
  • Red Bull 5 teaspoons of sugar
  • J2O Orange and Passion fruit 5 teaspoons of sugar
  • Starbucks Grande Caramel Macchiato 8 teaspoons of sugar
  • Starbucks 2 slices of fruit toast 9 teaspoons of sugar
  • 500ml Volvic touch of fruit water 7 teaspoons of sugar
  • One Weight Watchers snack caramel wafer 2 teaspoons of sugar
  • One chocolate digestive 1.2 teaspoons of sugar

Let’s say that you have a bowl of Bran Flakes and a small 250ml glass of fruit juice for breakfast and you take a Weight Watchers snack bar as a mid-morning snack, that's 14.5 teaspoons of sugar which is almost THREE TIMES the new recommended intake. Because of clever marketing, most people would think that was a 'healthy' breakfast.

Sugar's close rival is High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which is a man made, processed sweetener, made from corn. The benefits, to food manufacturers, are that HFCS prolongs the shelf life of food and it is both easy and cheap to produce. White sugar, brown sugar and HFCS contain fructose and all have the potential to damage our health in the same way. If a food has a long shelf life it is more likely to contain HFCS.

Action on sugar is a group of credible specialists who are concerned with our sugar intake and its effects on health. It's chairman, being a Professor in cardiovascular health. They are campaigning for the sugar content in foods to be reduced and also to stop marketing campaigns that promote high sugar drinks and snacks, aimed at children. Why might this be?

Let’s look at the effects of sugar on health:

In 1972, John Yudkin, a physiologist and nutritionist, published his book 'Pure White and Deadly'. Yudkin concluded that fructose; a specific part of SUGAR, raised blood Triglyceride levels (fats circulating in blood) and it was this that was the major contributor of heart disease and other inflammatory diseases. Sadly, at the time, Yudkin's work was largely ignored.

In another book 'Fat Chance', Professor Robert Lustig also concludes that fructose is the major cause of Obesity, heart disease and Metabolic Diseases such as Insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes. 

OK, so we can accept that refined sugars, hidden in confectionery, sweets, muffins, soft drinks and sauces, to name but a few, could be a problem, but what about fructose found in fruit?

Lustig goes on to explain that the body is capable of digesting reasonable amounts of fructose found in WHOLE fruits, due to its relatively high fibre content. It's a different story when it comes to fruit juice and foods containing processed fruit such as fruit yogurts and smoothies. Most of the fibre has been removed and this can affect insulin production, fat storage and health.

  • High blood sugar levels = Spikes in Insulin levels
  • Spikes in Insulin levels = Potential damage to artery walls and insulin resistance
  • Damage to artery walls = fatty plaque worm their way into the artery walls
  • Insulin resistance = Type 2 Diabetes & Obesity
  • Fatty plaque in artery walls = Atherosclerosis
  • Atherosclerosis = Narrowing of the arteries and, potential Coronary Heart Disease

If you want to reduce your risk of disease then reduce your insulin production by:

  1. Reducing or eliminating ADDED and hidden SUGAR from processed foods
  2. Reducing consumption of processed fruit and fruit juice
  3. Eating fruit with fibre. In other words eat WHOLE fruits to obtain essential vitamins and minerals
  4. Eating moderate portions of quality protein, natural fats and whole carbohydrate sources. Too big a portion of anything can be STORED

So, what about our WEIGHT and FAT STORES?

We STORE what we don't use for energy. Sugar is a form of carbohydrate. Bradley Wiggins can get away with eating more carbohydrates before a tough training session or the Tour De France because he NEEDS lots of energy. The same isn't true of someone who spends the majority of their time sat at a desk, in their car or in meetings. If we don't need it, we STORE it. Excess body FAT is the result of STORED energy.

When blood sugar levels spike, insulin drives sugar into our FAT stores. As blood sugar levels drop, we feel hungry so we want to eat more. This is why high sugar foods that are low in fibre never satisfy us. To reduce appetite and FAT stores, we need to control insulin levels by:

  1. Reducing or eliminating ADDED and hidden SUGAR from processed foods.
  2. Reducing consumption of processed fruit and fruit juice.
  3. Eating fruit with fibre. In other words eat WHOLE fruits to obtain essential vitamins and minerals.
  4. Eating moderate portions of quality protein, natural fats and whole carbohydrate sources. Too big a portion of anything can be STORED

It's just the same advice, as for health.

On the other side of the fence is the sugar industry, who lobbies strongly against the idea that sugar is to blame for our expanding waistlines and the deteriorating health of our nation. They would say that, sugar alone, cannot be held responsible. As the worldwide sugar industry is worth an estimated £50 billion, I will let you draw your own conclusions on this.

Whatever, conclusions we draw, one thing is certain and that is that the majority of people are consuming sugar without even realising it AND consuming too much of it. They may think that they are choosing the 'healthy' option by choosing the 'low fat' option but, the reality is, that as fat is removed from foods, it is replaced by sugar. Whether that is a skinny muffin, weight watchers biscuits, light salad dressing or low fat peanut butter, there will be plenty of hidden sugars.

My own conclusions are, watch out for hidden sugars, for the sake of your HEALTH, as much as your waistline. Read the INGREDIENTS lists on food labels and be mindful that the higher up the list sugar appears, the more sugar there is in that product. Sugar may appear as sugar, fructose, dextrose etc.

Even better, just eat REAL food, which nature intended us to eat. As soon as we refine it, pulp it, juice it or process it in any way, it no longer represents a natural product. Nature provided us with natural sugars in WHOLE fruits, full of fibre, vitamins and minerals and nature provided it seasonally so we should eat it that way to maximise on nutrients.

SIX simple steps to managing your health and your weight:

  1. Just Eat Real Food. At least 90% of the time
  2. Reduce or eliminate added and refined sugars
  3. Eliminate Trans Fats (discussed in next blog)
  4. Eat protein, natural fats and a variety of vegetables. Lots of them and different colours
  5. Move your body regularly
  6. Sleep, Recover, Rest, do what you love and LAUGH!

Watch out for the next blog......FAT- The Good, Bad & the Ugly

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