A ‘shout-out’ for Sugar? Am I going crazy?!
Am I really posting a shout-out for sugar? Am I going crazy? Well yes! And no!
National Sugar Awareness Week (20-26 January) designed to “raise awareness of the health impacts of consuming excess sugar (and calories) and educating the public to help them to consume less. The aim of the week is to create as much noise as possible to continue to put pressure on the government and industry.”
In the face of the very significant health issues facing the developed world today (particularly obesity and diabetes), any defence of sugar will be seen as controversial. But I think it’s really important to understand the nuances and strongly maintain that most of us, with intelligent and judicious use, can enjoy the nutritional benefits of whole fruits and by better understanding our natural love for all things sweet, we can still enjoy an occasional, traditional, home-made sweet treat!
Demonising the white stuff
I’m giving a shout out for sugar (and added bold italics above) because I want us to avoid shifting the blame from demon fats to demon sugar; neither are demons in their own right… it’s how we misuse sugar that matters.
When it comes to excess sugar consumption, I wholeheartedly agree that we eat far, far too much refined and added sugar in all its forms – particularly refined carbohydrates (breads, cereals and flour products) and the excess sugars which hide in every kind of the processed and ultra-processed foods we are really good at consuming with abandon.
Ultra-processed and convenience foods are full of excessive and carefully hidden amounts of sugars - far, far more than we would ever use in our own kitchen. Because we rely so heavily on these convenience products, we drastically over-consume sugars, for energy and displace other important nutrients from our diet.
Although we tend to think that ‘added’ sugar is only found in desserts, cakes, biscuits and other sweet treats, it’s packed into savoury processed foods, such as bread, pasta and pasta sauce. To make matters worse, many foods promoted as ‘natural’ or ‘healthy’ are stuffed with added sugars in an effort to add flavour when the demonised fats are removed. The food industry uses a dizzying array of names to conceal the frightening amounts of added sugars contained in these super-sweet foods (see below).
Excess sugars cause not only a blood-sugar car-crash – they're highly inflammatory and immune-suppressing. But before we throw the baby out with its sugary water, let’s understand the important nuances:
Sugar: pure, white and deadly?
Our U-turn on sugar began in the 1950s, when Professor John Yudkin - quite rightly - didn't accept the idea that eating saturated fat was the cause of high blood levels of triglycerides and cholesterol.
He argued that it was the fructose component of sucrose (table sugar), rather than dietary fat, that caused the high blood lipids seen in people from affluent countries. He specifically blamed the chemical effect of the fructose component because, he argued, the nutrients that were removed when refining white sugar (and white flour too) were insignificant in the diet.
Although Yudkin’s ideas were wholly rejected by the medical establishment of the day (and his work roundly pilloried by his peers) more recent interest in Yudkin’s work has converted many, including contemporary clinicians, to his view that sugar is a ‘demonic’ food.
Sugar now has become the new ‘saturated fat’ – a sweet, addictive poison singularly responsible for fuelling the obesity epidemic and causing every kind of illness – particularly obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.
But is it?
Ultimately, our body reduces all carbohydrates to simple sugars. When we consume carbs, our blood sugar levels increase and our pancreas releases the hormone insulin to help get it out of the bloodstream and into our liver and muscle tissues for short-term energy storage, and into fat cells (where it’s stored as triglycerides) for long term energy storage.
However, when we over-consume carbohydrates/sugars our blood sugar becomes chronically elevated and our pancreas responds by increasing insulin production. If we continue to over-consume, for any length of time and our cells become sensitive and then resistant to insulin and we can no longer control our blood sugar – hello Type 2 Diabetes.
The carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis – a big black mark for sugar?
An understandable, logical but wrong assumption has held that by reducing or avoiding carbs altogether, we can avoid insulin resistance – hello low carb/ketogenic diets and, although it may sound like a solution, for many of us (particularly for women) these kinds of diets can crush our thyroid function and metabolism and waste muscle mass.
Insulin – friend or foe?
Dr Chris Masterjohn, a leading nutritional science researcher, writer and teacher has strongly argued in favour of insulin in his paper, Sugar is the ultimate antioxidant and insulin will make you younger: Appreciating a few poorly-recognised but critical contributions of carbohydrate:
"As we move forward, we need to frame our discussions of glucose as a nutrient and insulin as a protective hormone whose protective functions are being lost in obesity and diabetes.
With this framework, we may be able to shake off the old rhetoric about fats without redirecting it toward carbohydrate as the new nutritional boogeyman.
Then we can look freely at the buffet of dietary tools at our disposal and study with a clearer collective mind how to maximally reap their benefits in a way that is tailored to each of us as an individual."
Dr Sarah Ballantyne, a renowned health expert and evidence-based researcher, has written compellingly that:
” Human insulin plays a lot of other important roles in human health independent of its role in energy balance. In fact, insulin does several very important jobs that have nothing to do with glucose.”
She explains how insulin, like cortisol, is a ‘super hormone’ and benefits thyroid function, skeletal muscle metabolism, bone health, central nervous system function, cognitive function, sex hormone regulation, immune health and C-peptide with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
It looks like more recent science is finally beginning to understand that too little can be just as bad as too much; that the dosage of sugar and insulin are very important; and that, in the right amounts for each one of us, both are supportive of a healthy metabolism.
Sugar: So what do I actually mean by it?
Primarily, ‘sugar’ is what we find in whole foods, like fresh, whole ripe and exotic fruits, fresh unadulterated fruit juices, honey, maple syrup and molasses. However, when you consider that maple syrup, molasses and ‘unrefined’ sugars are actually quite highly processed in order to be consumed, it blurs the distinction between these and other ‘refined’ sugars.
What I most certainly DON’T mean by ‘sugar’ is the plethora of refined and manufactured sugars and sugar substitutes found extensively in ultra-processed foods. Just consider the number of ways the food industry has come up with to disguise the excessive sugar content in their offerings:
brown sugar, cane sugar, caramel, carob syrup, castor sugar, demerara sugar, fruit juice concentrate, golden syrup, maple syrup, molasses, muscovado sugar, corn syrup, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, galactose, glucose, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, rice syrup… the list goes on. And on…
Next time you shop, take a good look at the label and count how many of the above are included in the ingredients. Then pause for serious thought before proceeding to buy - the majority are highly refined substances. Our body cannot recognise these man-made, chemical manipulations and it will not thank you for consuming them. Remember: ‘garbage-in, garbage-out’.
Sugar cravings: our bodies are wiser than we are
We are ‘hard-wired’ to desire sweetness over tart or bitter tastes and it’s something we retain from cradle to grave. Throughout our evolution, we’ve sought out sweet foods and sugar ‘cravings’ are often a message our wise body is giving us to help us not only to survive, but to thrive:
“Any craving is a good starting point, because we have several biological mechanisms for correcting specific nutritional deficiencies.
When something is interfering with your ability to use sugar, you crave it because if you don’t eat it you will waste protein to make it.”
- Dr Ray Peat
Can we use sugar intelligently? Yes!
Do NOT feed the craving with ultra-processed foods packed with damaging fake sugars: those cloying snack bars, grain-based ‘energy’ bars, cereals, cakes, muffins, biscuits and sweets.
Think of sugar as a condiment to your food: Favour sugars from ripe, whole tropical fruits, seasonal fruits, berries and starches from root vegetables.
Let taste - the body’s innate wisdom - be our guide. If you’re craving sugar relentlessly, it’s a clear sign that your body is asking for more energy - so feed it with a few more nourishing carbohydrate-based foods like milk, fruit, fresh fruit juices and root vegetables and eat these with protein.
Always eat your sugars with proteins, natural fats and cinnamon: these slow down the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream. This is especially important if you have blood sugar regulation issues and depending on the severity, you would be wise to use sugar-rich natural foods
Cook from scratch: It’s really difficult to over-consume sugar if you cook from scratch, unless you regularly eat vast quantities of home-made cakes and treats, or drink countless cups of tea with two sugars. Just try eating piles of sugar straight off the spoon - I’ll bet you’ll find it difficult to manage even one teaspoonful.
So yes, I’m giving a shout-out for sugar because judicious use of sugar has been part of human culture for thousands of years!
“If you want to understand Western history, you have to understand sugar. And vice versa. Because sugar’s not just something sweet: over the centuries it’s been a medicine, a spice, a symbol of royalty, and an instrument of disease, addiction, and oppression.”
This post is based on the SUGAR chapter in my book The Real Food Solution.
Learn more about how we’ve lost our way with sugar and other traditional real foods like eggs, milk, meat, bone broths, fish & seafood, cultured and fermented foods, fruit & veg, fats, bread, salt, herbs & spices … and how to put these back on your table for better energy, vitality and health for you and your planet.
This forthcoming title was previously published as Once Upon a Cook - Food Wisdom, Better Living and has been fully updated and revised for 2020.