Friday, 27 April 2012

Sweet Nothings

It seems that lately sugar is  back in style. I've had several conversations with various friends and family about this over the last few weeks. It seems to be a hot topic, probably because obesity, diabetes and heart disease are also hot topics, and rightly so.  North Americans are eating themselves to death. And North Americans do not give in easily to common sense and better dietary practices. They want to maintain their unhealthy dietary practices and somehow avoid the deadly trio of obesity, diabetes and heart disease at the same time. A little Marie Antoinette-ish, don't you think. Yet despite our efforts to find a magic pill, it turns out that we can't have our cake, eat it and not pay the consequences of out of control sugar consumption. Even if we buy fancy, fashionable sweeteners at the health food store.

It is not an exaggeration to say that sugar consumption in North America is out of control. According to, Americans consume 165 pounds of added sugar per year- that's 31- 5 pound bags. The bulk of added sugars in our diets come from soft drinks, sugar added fruit juices, and foods like ketchup, flavoured yogurt, canned vegetables and fruit, peanut butter, boxed cereals and salad dressings, many of which offer "low-fat" options. Amazingly, the sugar content of "low fat" foods can be just as high or higher than "regular" foods. Most people don't read the nutritional content labels to discover this on their own.

Considering that in 2012,  30% of Americans and 14% of Canadians are considered "obese," and to be obese, one need be thirty pounds above an ideal weight, the role of sugars, either hidden or obvious is worthy of consideration. Obesity as an issue is not simply a matter of being fashionable- of preferring slimness as an aesthetic quality over plumpness:  it is matter of life and death.

So why is sugar itself so bad?

glucose: is used, but is not required for cellular function. We get enough glucose to maintain this function through carbohydrates in the form of fruit and grains and even from fats and protein. "The body works very hard to keep blood glucose in a narrow range, through careful administration of insulin. Too high and all kinds of damage can be done, too low and all kinds of death can occur. So really only one kind of death, but in the grand scheme, isn’t one enough?"

fructose: fructose mainly enters the body through fruit (unless you eat a lot of added sugar foods). Fructose is problematic, as it has been specifically linked to obesity. Furthermore, the processing of fructose taxes the liver, which "tends to promote an increase in triglycerides in the blood, which are a definite marker for heart disease."

So, while consuming your 31 bags of sugar, well on your way to obesity, you can also look forward to diabetes and heart disease.

It used to be that if one wanted to be healthy one simply avoided "white death," due not only to sugar's links to the unholy trio of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but also because the consumption of sugar has been linked to behavioural changes in children. No wonder, really when you think about the grueling process  the body has to go through to metabolize those sweet treats that well- meaning parents or grandparents tend to dole out to their beloved children or grandchildren, assuming that a little won't hurt them. Most disturbingly, marketing campaigns, undoubtedly backed by various sweetener producing companies are schilling the sweet stuff again and have repackaged some sweeteners in sheep's clothing. Even health foodies are jumping on the "healthy sugar" bandwagon. But should we be jumping up with them? Cane sugar and agave nectar are the latest types of sweeteners to enter the market as health foods. Stevia is another "sweetener" that has recently become popular, and while not technically a sugar, may or may not come with its own health risks in the form of leading to male reproductive problems, interfering with  metabolism and genetic mutations. While it has been used in South America for centuries in its pure herbal form, it seems that the distilled and refined derivative being used in north America may pose its own health risks. The jury seems to be out on this one, although we may call to mind the earlier advice that avoiding highly processed foods is always the best route, and stevia in its commercially sold forms is highly processed.

When talking to dieticians, nutritionists and other healthcare practitioners about which is the healthiest kind of sweetener to use, the answer is generally, "none." Sugar is sugar, regardless of where it comes from and which new slick marketing campaign is applied to it. Organic sugar is still sugar- it simply hasn't been assaulted with pesticides. All sweeteners are made up of varying ratios of fructose and glucose. And as it turns out demon sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup have about the same ratios as less demonized sweeteners as honey, agave syrup and evaporated cane juice.

When pressed further, health care and dietary practitioners will concede that if you must use a sweetener (and really is there ever a time when we "must" use one?), that you should use one that has been subject to as little processing as possible. There are only two sugars worthy of mentioning in this category: Unpasteurized honey and evaporated cane juice. While agave nectar's glycemic index is understood to be about 5 times lower than other sweeteners, the agave plant is subject to a horror show of processing in order to make the syrup, making it as highly refined as white sugar. Its fructose content is on par with high fructose corn syrup, the grand-daddy of bad sugars. Furthermore, agave plants are often doused with pesticides and many shipments from Mexico to the U.S. have been refused due to unsafe levels of pesticide use. Maple sugar was not mentioned in much of the literature, but it is also worthy of consideration as it is very lightly processed and also contains important minerals such as manganese (an antioxidant) and zinc (excellent for heart health). If you must use sweeteners, that is.

Avoiding processed food of any kind is reasonable and good advice. We should use this as a guiding principle for all of our dietary considerations. I for one am a huge proponent of eating food that is actually food- as close to its natural state as possible. I not do microwave food (a future blog will be dedicated to this). Oh sure, I've been called a paranoid hippie. I've always wondered why people would think this is a negative name? But I digress.

In moderation, sugar is not the devil in sweet disguise. However, most North Americans do not have a firm grasp of what appropriate levels of intake look like; nor are they always aware of when they have consumed added sugar, which makes it impossible to measure and control sugar consumption. Furthermore, it seems that our tolerance for how much sugar it is ok to consume has increased steadily over the decades, with the consumption of sugar increasing by 20% between 1987 and 1997.

Added sugar should account for no more than 10% of a person's daily caloric intake. In a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, that's just 200 calories -- or eight heaping teaspoons of table sugar at 25 calories each. A single can of regular soda, with the equivalent of 10 teaspoons, would put you over.

So what can we do about this health crisis? (And if you don't believe that obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates constitute a health crisis in north America, then you haven't been paying attention!)

Here are some tips:

  • read the labels of processed foods that you buy- read both the nutritional content labels and the ingredients. You will be surprised how many foods you consume have sugar added to them. 
  • Avoid foods with added sugar. Often, if we make it ourselves from scratch, it would contain little or no sugar. A good example of this is home made vs store bought pasta sauce. We would probably not add sugar to home made pasta sauce, yet many store brands have added sugar. Either make it yourself, or look for brands that do not contain added sugar.
  • watch your beverage consumption. Drink water and unsweetened tea and coffee. Sodas and fruit juices, vitamin waters and the like are loaded with extra sugar. 
  • watch your portion size- follow the nutritional content serving size so that you can keep track of how much sugar you have consumed each day.
  • when you crave sugar, eat fruit. Sure, it has its own natural sugars, but it does not pose the same health risks. Plus you get vitamins, minerals, fibre and water when you eat fruit. And it will probably satisfy your craving for unhealthy forms of sugar.
  • AVOID processed foods. Make your own dressings and sauces, eat oatmeal with fruit (don't add sugar), eat plain yogurt with fruit sliced into it. Do not add sugar to things that are already sweet, such as fruit.
What about artificial sweeteners? Avoid these altogether. There are a host of health issues related to the use of artificial sweeteners such as sucralose and aspartame. Avoid these like the plague. Here's some info on why. 

Ideally, we should be cutting our consumption of sugar- of any kind- drastically. This can prove difficult, as sugar is addictive and pervasive. It is also associated with many of our most fun days of the year: Halloween, Easter, Christmas, Valentine's Day- holidays that seem to revolve more around the consumption of sweetened food than they do around their spiritual foundations. The consumption of sugar is often culturally determined, which means that collectively, we need to rethink how we celebrate these occasions. Are there other ways to celebrate our love for each other than through heart-shaped boxes of chocolates? Can we mark the crucifixion and ascension of Christ without chocolate bunnies? I thinks so.

 The first few days, even weeks without sugar can be difficult as your body deals with its dependance on sugar and as your taste buds adjust. But it won't be long before you no longer crave sugar. You will be surprised how sweet - almost unbearably so- food tastes that has been sweetened.

Pretty soon you will look at pictures such as the one above and see fat, health risk, food dye and poor health instead of a pretty bowl of sweet nothings.

xo Jo

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