The truth about sugar (and how to consume less)
November 2021   BODY & MIND

The truth about sugar (and how to consume less)

Colourful carbohydrates are key to a well-balanced, healthy diet. We explore the positives, and negatives, of different types of sugar.
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Do you find yourself on a rollercoaster of energy highs and lows in your working day? Your intake of sugar could be the cause, but why and how do you make a change? Well-being coach Sue Thomas talks us through the impact of sugar on your body and how you can improve your diet, one meal at a time. 

Why is sugar addictive?

Everyone knows that sugar is an addictive substance, but it’s addictive for several reasons. Firstly, when we consume it, we like the taste and we release dopamine, which encourages us to eat more of it.

Secondly, sugar also feeds yeast in the intestine – for yeast to be activated it needs sugar – and we have a direct link between our brain and our intestine called the vagus nerve. The yeast sends messages via this nerve making us want to consume more sweet food.  

What happens then?

Sugar causes us to release the blood sugar hormone insulin, which manages our sugar levels. When we consume sugar, insulin is released and it will pick up the sugar molecules and take them to the cells for energy production.

But, if we are not using that sugar for energy, the insulin receptors on the cells just shut down, saying we don't need any more sugar. That’s when we get into what's called insulin resistance which means we can't access the sugar for energy production and that makes us feel tired, can give us brain fog, which means we’re not functioning effectively.

Instead, with the insulin floating around the system, the body's in a state of stress. And so we take the sugars to the liver where we convert the sugars into triglycerides [a type of fat], which means we end up gaining weight.

So, sugar basically gets us into an addictive cycle?

We've had the media telling us for many years that fat causes us to gain weight but it’s actually sugar that causes us to gain weight. And, because we're then in that cycle of addiction, we want to eat more of it, because we like the dopamine hit.

When we eat sugar it gives us that quick fix to pick us up, but it takes us on a rollercoaster of peaks and troughs.  If the brain perceives that our blood sugar levels have dropped, it will encourage us to eat more sugar, a quick fix to pick us up. So, when people get hungry at half-past ten, or they have the afternoon slump at three o'clock, that's all related to what's happening with blood sugar levels: we get blood sugar crashes, we feel tired, we feel hungry, we reach for a sugary snack.

Sugar is bad then?

No, sugar is a carbohydrate and the body needs carbohydrates to function, ideally we need a balanced diet of 40% carbohydrate, 40% protein and 20% fat. So, I’m not saying get rid of carbohydrates. What I’m talking about is reducing sugar consumption in order to be able to manage insulin levels better and, most importantly, we still want to be consuming carbohydrates.

What kind of carbohydrates?

Think about it on a spectrum and there’s red, green and orange foods, which are colourful carbohydrates. Then we've got beige and white, which are the carbohydrates that we would normally associate with things like bread, pasta, and sugar, and baked goods like cakes and biscuits.

When the body metabolises carbohydrate it releases something called free radicals, which are atoms that are highly damaging to the body and cause inflammation, which is the underlying cause of illness in the body. But, if we get our carbohydrates from the reds, greens and oranges for energy production, they contain antioxidants, which counter-acts the impact of free radicals.

However, if we're consuming most of our carbohydrate from beige and white carbohydrates, they don't contain those antioxidants in the same way, and if we’re not eating enough of the reds, greens and oranges, the free radicals can lead us into ill health and disease.

So you should be trying to get that 40% of carbohydrates from the coloured group.

Plate with oranges

What else happens if we eat the reds, greens and oranges?

When I encourage people to reduce their consumption of sugar, they find themselves having much more energy, because those reds and greens and oranges will release carbohydrates more slowly into the body, which means they don't get on that insulin rollercoaster of ups and downs. So, for instance, if you had a big plate of salad with protein for lunch instead of a sandwich, your blood sugar's much more balanced to give you more energy through the course of the afternoon, so you won't get that slump at three o'clock, which results in you eating more sugar.

Colour in your diet graphic

How do we improve our diet – by cutting all things white and beige?

You need to take things gradually and don't expect a transformation overnight when looking to form new habits. If you just cut out sugar completely, by Wednesday you’ll have given up because it's too hard. Change your habits gradually, so if you notice for example that you're consuming two biscuits mid-morning, because you’re craving sugar, if you adjust your breakfast, you can avoid that. Make your breakfast more protein-orientated: boiled eggs with avocado and spinach; full-fat Greek yoghurt with seeds, nuts and blueberries; smoked salmon, anything that is protein-based.

Protein will release sugars into your bloodstream much more slowly and, trust me, one boiled egg will keep you full all morning, you won’t end up with that craving of needing a sugar fix at half-past ten.

Why does protein have that impact?

First thing in the morning your stomach is full of hydrochloric acid which is designed to break down protein, it’s not designed to break down carbohydrates. If you eat protein first thing it will release sugars really slowly, if you eat carbohydrate – in the form of bread or cereals – it will release this really quickly and then you'll have an insulin spike and a crash.

Give us a snapshot of a healthy day.

For breakfast, rather than toast or cereal, have one or two boiled eggs, that’s the first thing, and then get rid of the sugary snack mid-morning. Once you've mastered that, focus on your lunch and move away from sandwiches and think about big bowls of salad with chicken, ham and all sorts of protein on it with lots of colourful carbs. Doing that should take care of the afternoon slump, then your evening meal begins to take care of itself.

But first, just get breakfast sorted, and get yourself off that rollercoaster of blood sugars. Start the day with balanced blood sugars and then you can make much better decisions as the day goes on.

To find out more about Sue Thomas and her health and well-being programmes, visit Sue Thomas Wellbeing

 

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