Dr Libby’s Seven Sugar Snippets
Sugar is one of the most topical yet misunderstood health subjects doing the rounds at the moment so over the coming days I will share my Seven Sugar Snippets with you as we start to explore this confusing topic.
Before answering the question “what is sugar?” it is vital to clarify the precise definition of the word “sugar” as it is used loosely in the modern vernacular and given a variety of meanings.
Technically sugar and starch are carbohydrates, with one of the main differences between them being the size of their structures. The term “sugar” refers to simple sugars, monosaccharides, such as glucose and fructose, as well as disaccharides such as sucrose, lactose and maltose, which are two monosaccharides linked together. Starches are polysaccharides made up of long chains of monosaccharides. Starches are broken down into sugars during digestion.
Today, when people use the word “sugar” they are usually referring to table sugar. Before understanding more about sugar though, it is important to first become familiar with sugar language.
How do foods naturally contain sugar?
Here’s one way that you may not know. Sugars (see yesterday’s post for a clear definition of sugars) are created by some plants to store energy that they don’t need straight away, rather like the way animals make fat. For plants, periods of feast and famine are natural – drought being an example of a famine for a plant – and plants have to be able to store fuel for lean times so they can survive. Sugars are these fuels for them.
Plants make sugars via photosynthesis. The plant takes in carbon dioxide from the air though pores in its leaves and absorbs water through its roots. These are combined to make sugar, using energy from the sun and with the help of a substance called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is green, which allows it to absorb the sun’s energy more readily and which, of course, gives the plants’ leaves their green colour. So every time we eat these, we get a small (or large) serving of some of these sugars that the plant has stored.
You don’t need to remember the technical language. I am keen for you to simply understand this concept. Phosphoglyceraldehyde serves as the starting material for the synthesis of glucose and fructose in plants. Glucose and fructose may remain in this structure within the plant or they may combine to form sucrose and travel in solution to other parts of the plant, such as to (what becomes) the fruit and/or the roots, as occurs with sweet potato, for example.
Glucose is the monosaccharide used in the synthesis of the polysaccharides starch and cellulose. Humans lack the digestive enzymes necessary to break down cellulose however we are able to digest starch into glucose to be utilised as fuel or stored as energy for later.
One major change in the food supply in the relatively recent past has been the refining of starches and sugars, concentrating the sweet flavour and the energy density of foods. More in this in a future post. For now, just know that nature supplies us with sugars such as glucose, fructose and sucrose via plant foods.
What is table sugar?
White sugar, otherwise known as table sugar is sucrose; glucose and fructose joined together. It is derived from sugar cane, which must undergo many processes of refinement to create table sugar. I’ll explain more about this process in future writing.
Nature has made it relatively hard for humans to get sweet food. Fruit is somewhat easy to find in nature. Yet if you walk into a field of sugar cane you can’t access the juice inside with your own hands. Machinery is required. If you taste it though, it is sweet but only subtly and it is packed with a range of nutrients including B group vitamins and magnesium.
But the road from the juice within the sugar cane to white refined sugar is a journey that concentrates sweetness, making us want sweeter and sweeter foods, concentrates energy (calories), and destroys nutrients, all factors that are highly undesirable for great health.
Since the explosion of processed, packaged foods available on the supermarket shelves occurred humans’ consumption of refined sugars and refined starches have dramatically increased. As previously discussed, we simply didn’t have the machinery necessary to access so much sweet food, prior to the industrial revolution which didn’t occur that long ago when you consider the enormity of time humans have been on the planet.
According to the International Sugar Organization’s Sugar Year Book, published in 2012, world per capita consumption of sugar in 2011 was 23.7 kilograms per person per year. However, there are many developing countries such as Papua New Guinea whose average consumption of sugar in 2011 was 7.2kg/person/year, which contributes to bringing the average down. This means there are many countries in which people consume on average significantly more than 23.7kg of refined sugar per person per year.
These statistics do not take into consideration the amounts of refined starch consumed, which research and logic both show has dramatically increased across time. Cereal grains, dairy products, high-sugar beverages, oils and dressings, refined sugars and lollies currently comprise more than 60 percent of the total daily energy consumed by all people in the United States.
Virtually none of these foods would have been available in their current forms even 200 years ago, which is only about six to seven generations of people. Our bodies don’t adapt that quickly to changes in the environment, which includes the diet.
Many people make great food choices for breakfast and lunch, and then at 3 o’clock in the afternoon (or after dinner, or both!), it is as if someone else has taken over their body, as the sugar cravings – and subsequent consumption of sugar – kick in. How does this happen for too many people, who actually know it doesn’t serve them – day after day? There are numerous reasons, which include:
- Stress: adrenalin leads you to use glucose stores (stored glucose is known as glycogen) and as the glucose fuel tank gets low, you crave it to fill the get out of danger fuel tank
- Caffeine: leads humans to make adrenalin hence the reason above comes into play
- Fatigue: although we all have plenty of body fat to burn as energy, many people don’t switch efficiently from sugar burning to fat burning and as their energy crashes, they look for sugar to boost energy
- Emotions: food can numb emotional pain, although we may not realise we are using it for this reason. People may crave sugar looking for more sweetness and joy in life; seeking momentary relief from drudgery or boredom
Understanding the road into a health challenge is important as that is the road we need to take out of it. Explore what leads you to crave sugar.
Your body doesn’t have a voice but it will give you symptoms to let you know whether it is happy or not with the way you eat, drink, move, think, breathe, believe and perceive.
Many years ago now, I met a lady after she’d been through a very difficult time with her health. She had wanted to lose weight for her wedding. She was more than a size 20 at the time of her engagement and she said she wanted to be a size 10 for her wedding. So she embarked on a popular low carb, high protein diet. The weight fell off her. For the first stage of the diet she chose to go on, people are told to eat 20 grams of carbohydrates or less per day for six weeks.
This lady loved eating steak for breakfast and said it didn’t feel like a diet to her and so off her own back, she decided to keep going with what was intended to be an initial phase of this diet she’d chosen to go on, and stick to less than 20 grams of carbs per day. She did this for 15 months. Her kidneys failed and she is now on dialysis, which means she has to go to a hospital every second day to have a machine clean her blood because her kidneys can no longer do their job.
After she’d shared her experience, I asked her if her body had let her know that the way she was eating was not serving her. She said she’d had a severe headache daily that in the end painkillers wouldn’t touch – the brain screaming for glucose – and that she had chronic lower back pain, likely referred pain from the kidneys. Please note: Please don’t think that if you have lower back pain that there is something wrong with your kidneys. It can be postural, structural or there can be countless other reasons why the lower back is painful. I simply want to share this lady’s story to demonstrate that the organs that particularly needed the glucose were crying out for it. She didn’t do anything about her diet as she didn’t link it to the pain she was experiencing.
The point to this is that the body needs glucose. It can be a challenge today though, to not over-supply the body with glucose through concentrated forms of sugars such as refined white sugar and other refined products. But the under-supply is also a health issue and it is not discussed enough. I meet people every day who do all they can to omit all sources of carbohydrates and feel guilty if they eat them. Extremes like this can be incredibly unhealthy, both physically and psychologically. You need to find what supports you as an individual.