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. Its 2014, and reports state that the average person now consumes 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 ?".
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 !
So what happens next I hear you ask ? Well, once broken down into free glucose by the digestive process, the glucose makes it way from the intestines via the bloodstream to the liver, quite quickly may I add, however its fate is yet to be decided. Free glucose causes the release of a very important hormone known as insulin as it enters the bloodstream. The job of insulin is to transport blood glucose (blood sugar) to the liver where, under normal conditions, it is absorbed and stored as a form of starch called glycogen. This supply of stored glucose is critically important for maintaining blood glucose between meals. The remaining glucose which hasn't been absorbed and stored by the liver continues to circulate in the blood and is used by the brain, red blood cells and other tissues as a fuel source. It's worth pointing out now that certain cells in the body, particularly those in the brain can run on nothing other than glucose and without it we can experience all sorts of common symptoms such as dizziness, mind fog, headaches, hunger, even unconsciousness and eventually death !
So what's the problem ?
So sugar is good for you right ? Well, sort of. We do indeed need some glucose or carbs in our diet in order for our brains to function. The problems occur when we over-eat carbs. Most of the time the body prefers to usually run on fuel from fat and we'd benefit by reducing our intake to a minimum level providing just enough carbohydrate to meet the needs of the glucose-only dependant tissues. Having said that though, glycogen is also stored in our muscles and is used as energy when performing high-intensity, explosive, short bursts of activity. So it's not just our brains that need a certain amount of sugar to function. The more activity we do or the more intense exercise we partake in, the more glucose we require. The more lean muscle we have, the more glucose we can store in our muscle cells in the form of glycogen to use as fuel during anaerobic (short bursts of high intensity) exercise. The trick is to not eat too much in order to avoid a situation where our livers are full of glycogen. So unless you're training for an ironman triathlon, play a competitive sport 3 or 4 times per week or you would like to become obese and have loads of other health issues, you may want to reconsider your daily routine of porridge, cereal or toast for breakfast, sandwich, bagel or toastie for lunch and then a large meal based around pasta, potatoes, rice or bread for your evening meal...
When we eat too many carbs, sugar that can no longer be stored in the liver is converted to short chain saturated fat which is then stored on our hips, belly and anywhere else the body deems appropriate. Increasing levels of these fatty acids has a devastating effect on our metabolism and our hormone levels. These effects are seen in stages:
Firstly, due to a decreased sensitivity to a satiety hormone called leptin, we lose our ability to recognise when we are full and therefore tend to continue eating and remain hungry, despite the already elevated levels of glucose in our blood. We develop a sweet tooth and our brain can't recognise signals that tell us we've eaten enough.
Next, our insulin sensitivity is reduced meaning our ability to recognise that blood sugar levels are too high is impaired and therefore our body's response to sugar is degraded. It's at this point that our muscle and liver cells are literally drowning in glucose which drives blood sugar even higher and even more insulin is released. Eventually this leads to insulin resistance or the start of diabetes and excessive fat stores which cause us to become overweight.
Things are getting bad by this stage. Once systemic, full body insulin resistance occurs. At this point, fat begins to accumulate in the liver causing the start of fatty liver disease and despite swimming in glucose, our liver (and indeed our entire body) becomes totally resistant to insulin and consequently misinterprets the perceived 'lack of insulin' as low blood sugar ! Our bodies don't function well with low blood sugar levels. In fact the body knows that low blood sugar can kill you. So in response to this threat to survival our bodies activate a fight or flight response and begin to release our stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol is released to combat the perceived low blood glucose levels via a process called gluconeogenesis. This means despite the high level of sugar in our blood from excess carbohydrate, the body now makes even more glucose by cannibalising its own tissues. In this situation, muscle and organs are broken down to make more glucose. This is hugely detrimental if one of your goals down at the gym is to build more muscle and increase metabolism in order to burn fat. Muscles are considered the fat burning engines of metabolism and thus the situation is worsened further by not only adding more glucose to the blood from gluconeogenesis, but also by having less muscle with which to dispose and store all that glucose ! This is why type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance is effectively a wasting disease of the muscles whilst fat cells continue to increase in size particularly around the waistline.
It gets worse !
Consider this the next time you pour a couple of sachets of sugar into your coffee, order dessert or reach for a chocolate bar, can of cola or a bowl of cereal to 'fill a hole', 'pick you up' or 'see you through to lunch': Refined or processed sugar is also considered poisonous and highly addictive. It is found in most confectionary, chocolate, sodas, cordials, fruit juices, cakes, biscuits, sauces like ketchup, and too many other products to mention here. Due to its addictive nature, most people turn to sugar-containing foods to improve energy and concentration levels when they've dropped to a state of hypoglycaemia during the day, sending insulin levels and blood sugar levels rising up and crashing down all day long on this rollercoaster ride. The processing of sugar cane or beets (a whole food) to make table sugar depletes the levels of proteins, vitamins and minerals that previously existed leaving pure refined carbohydrate (sucrose, a mix of glucose and fructose). As a result, when we ingest refined sugar, in absence of these important nutritional factors we actually have to use some of the minerals, enzymes and vitamins in our body to be able to digest, metabolise and eliminate it. So eating sugar actually depletes or displaces our own body's stores of these vital micronutrients.
Furthermore, excessive sugar intake creates a continuously over-acidic environment within the body. Consequently, more minerals are required from body tissues such as bones and teeth in order to neutralise the acidic environment. All of this interferes with the respiration of the cells of the whole body. They simply cannot get enough oxygen to survive and function normally and so, over time, cells begin to die and the beginning of degenerative disease occurs. The whole body is affected and abnormally high blood pressure may be one of several resulting symptoms. The constant hormonal roller coaster caused by eating sugar-based junk food stresses and breaks down the body. It may contribute towards a whole host of problems including:
- drug addiction
- kidney disease
- liver disease
- coronary heart disease.
- attention deficit disorder (ADD)
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- behavioural problems
- violent tendancies
- yeast infections
- osteoperosis (bone loss)
- tooth decay
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- food intolerances
- degenerative diseases
- neurological disorders and
- diseases of malnutrition
Glycaemic Index and Glycaemic Load
The glycaemic index (GI) is a numerical system of measuring how much of a rise in circulating blood sugar a carbohydrate triggers – the higher the number, the greater the blood sugar response. So a low GI food will cause a small rise, while a high GI food will trigger a dramatic spike. A GI of 70 or more is high, a GI of 56 to 69 inclusive is medium, and a GI of 55 or less is low.
The glycaemic load (GL) is a relatively new way to assess the impact of carbohydrate consumption that takes the glycaemic index into account, but gives a fuller picture than does glycaemic index alone. A GI value tells you only how rapidly a particular carbohydrate turns into sugar. It doesn't tell you how much of that carbohydrate is in a serving of a particular food. You need to know both things to understand a food's effect on blood sugar. That is where glycaemic load comes in. The carbohydrate in watermelon, for example, has a high GI. But there isn't a lot of it, so watermelon's glycaemic load is relatively low. A GL of 20 or more is high, a GL of 11 to 19 inclusive is medium, and a GL of 10 or less is low.
Foods that have a low GL almost always have a low GI. Foods with an intermediate or high GL range from very low to very high GI.
- It would be wrong to say we don't need carbohydrate. Glucose is vital for normal brain function. How much is dependent upon a number of factors including activity levels, stress levels and lean muscle mass.
- However, it's obvious that table sugar and refined sugar-containing foods are not healthy and must be minimised if not eliminated completely from your diet. Look at labels and be weary when words ending in -ose appear early in the list of ingredients (watch for sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, lactose and glucose amongst others).
- Take into consideration that all carbohydrates, whether they're complex starches or simple sugars, must be broken down to glucose (monosaccharides) before we can digest and absorb them. Therefore all carbs affect our blood sugar levels. Even complex starches have the potential to disrupt the function of our body's systems.
- Consider obtaining your required levels of carbohydrates from natural whole foods with a low glycemic value. This means that the sugars are absorbed slower and released into the bloodstream more steadily thus reducing the insulin response and avoiding reduced insulin sensitivity.
- Look to eat predominantly above-the-ground (non-starchy), preferrably raw, green vegetables for a good, natural source of carbohydrate and maybe some below-the-ground (starchy) vegetables as and when required (i.e. on heavy training days). Be cautious with fruit, choose berries which have a lower glycaemic value.
- Avoid white wheat flour. It has been reported that modern, processed flour has a higher glycaemic value than table sugar !
- Avoid replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame which is known to be a neurotoxin that can cause damage to the brain and nervous system whilst wreaking havoc with your insulin sensitivity and satiety hormones like leptin.
- Too much blood sugar = too much insulin = decreased insulin sensitivity leading to total insulin resistance, accumulation of fat and a whole host of degenerative systemic problems like diabetes.
- Always eat right for your unique, individual metabolic needs; get Metabolic Typed to discover how much carbohydrate your body truly requires to function optimally. Following preconceived diet guidelines diminishes participation in a relationship with your body ! Know your body and give it what it wants/needs !
Metabolic Typing is a process which determines how well you tend to metabolise carbs, fats and proteins, therefore allowing you to obtain a recommended or optimal percentage of each macronutrient in your diet for your type. Armed with this information you can create your own personalised diet plan and know exactly where to find the best sources of carbohydrate in the correct proportions. You'll also benefit from knowing how much of your plate should consist of proteins and fats too, which types and where to find them. Most importantly, metabolic typing addresses your own genetic requirements for each macronutrient, acknowledging that we're are all uniquely biochemically individual and that we all have differing speeds of metabolism meaning we all have varying abilities to metabolise carbs for energy.
What type are you ?
BSc Hons CHEK ITP CMTA Director, Holistic Lifestyle Coach, Certified Metabolic Typing Advisor, Personal Trainer and Rehabilitation Specialist Bodyguards Fitness Service Ltd 0191 2399000 firstname.lastname@example.org www.bodyguardsapt.com
At Bodyguards, using the Metabolic Typing assessment method and process we can assess and identify your metabolic type and then provide food lists based on which nutrients you need, along with appropriate shopping lists, easy-to-make meal suggestions, cooking guidelines, and suggested supplements. Discover exactly what foods will improve and balance your health, burn excess body fat, build lean muscle, increase metabolism, optimise physical energy production, eliminate cravings, eliminate hunger between meals, eradicate mood swings and balance emotions, improve mental clarity and ability to concentrate and have a good long-lasting, normal sense of vitality and wellbeing.Back to blog listing