Sugar - The real villain

400 years ago, refined or simple sugars, with the exception of honey, was not readily available to man. Back then, producing refined sugars such as packaged white sugar was an expensive and labour-intensive process and therefore only available to the rich. About 100 years ago, the average yearly intake of sugar was reported to be around 2kg per person. In 2014, reports stated that the average person consumed approximately 70kg of sugar per year ! That’s nearly about the same weight as an average male. It’s not hard to see that this is hugely problematic, especially when you consider that you are what you eat and that recent research has shown that we regenerate nearly every cell in our bodies each year ! Taking this into account, is it any wonder that obesity and diabetes is a massive problem nowadays ? However, it would seem that we’re finally starting to realise how damaging sugars can be, not just for your teeth but for the whole body and all of its systems.

There has been a huge amount written about sugar recently in the national papers and other forms of media, but does it provide the whole picture with regards to sugar and more importantly the effect of carbohydrates ? Let’s take a closer look…

Firstly, let’s be clear that sugars are carbohydrates and carbohydrates are sugars !

We’ll start by looking at the simplest of all the carbohydrates, monosaccharides. Mono, of course, means ‘single’ or ‘one’ and sacchar means ‘sugar’. so monosaccharide literally means ‘one sugar’. The two monosaccharides (or sugars) we’ll be looking at closest are ‘glucose’ (the main sugar used for energy in our bodies) and ‘fructose’ (a relative of glucose). I read somewhere an amusing description or way of thinking about fructose is that it’s like "a drunk aunt at a family reunion: She seems nice enough, but wreaks havoc wherever she goes !".

Next, we have disaccharides, which means ‘two sugars’. We’re all familiar with sucrose (table sugar) - this is a disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose. Refined (table) sugar has been recently reported as being the main culprit for causing obesity and diabetes in our country’s population. But is table sugar solely responsible for these health problems ?

Finally, we have polysaccharides (also known as complex carbs) which literally means ‘many sugars’. For the purpose of this article we can classify polysaccharides into two categories - indigestible polysaccharides, which we refer to as fiber (both soluble and insoluble). The other is digestible polysaccharides which we call starch. Bread, pasta, potatoes, corn and flour are all examples of polysaccharides/starch. So please consider that the next time an overweight dietician or doctor tells you that complex carbs are healthy, ask yourself "Does it make sense that ‘many sugars’ might be good for me ?".

Digestion

Now let’s talk a little about digestion and absorption. Carbohydrates (particularly starch) are initially broken down by an enzyme in saliva called amylase. However, due to the short amount of time food spends in the mouth (especially if we gulp our food down like a boa constrictor - we all need to chew our food more !) the activity is relatively small. The true digestion and absorption of carbs (both simple and complex) takes place in the intestines. Monosaccharides can enter the bloodstream directly but disaccharides like sucrose must be broken into monosaccharides first. The same applies to polysaccharides such as starch, they must be broken all the way down to free glucose before they can be absorbed into the body.

So, to summarise, all carbohydrates can only be absorbed through the intestinal wall and transported into circulation once they have been broken down into their simplest from. This is an opportunity to see complex carbs for exactly what they are: Lots of sugar. No matter what type of carbohydrate we eat, it all enters the system as either glucose or fructose, aka sugar !

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