Updated: Jan 28
For a long time fat was the enemy. Endless streams of advice and eating plans revolved around the notion that fat is bad for you which led to many leading health authorities advocating a low fat diet to aid in weight loss (1). There are two problems with this:
1. Fat is AN ESSENTIAL MACRONUTRIENT because it is responsible for mineral and vitamin absorption, hormone creation, cellular health, brain function and energy production (2) (3) (4). Restricting it can lead to health issues such as malnutrition, low hormone levels and impaired cognitive function.
2. Reducing calorie intake in any form can lead to weight loss. As long as you are in a CALORIE DEFICIT you should lose weight.
Realising the two points above and knowing that protein is also critical for health, it is clear that in order to reduce calorie intake in a way that avoids negative side effects, reducing carbohydrate consumption - specifically refined sugars - is one of the most effective ways of achieving that.
Low fat diets are starting to lose popularity as more trusted professional bodies are abandoning low fat diets and are instead recommending low carbohydrate diets for weight loss. Many studies have shown that compared to a low fat diet, low carbohydrate diets were more effective at promoting weight loss. (5)
Not all carbohydrates are created equally. There is a vast difference between refined sugars such as HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) and organic root vegetables. A diet low in refined sugars seems to be universally recommended across all diets and for good reason! Root vegetables, vegetables and fruits all provide valuable health benefits if prepared and consumed correctly.
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Evidently, if you are looking to reduce your calorie intake, it is a good idea to restrict your intake of added sugar. Let's look into how carbohydrates and artificial sugars affect the body:
When sugar is ingested the body reacts by releasing insulin into the bloodstream to lower the level of blood sugar. Insulin binds to the sugar and signals to the cells to absorb the sugar to use for its energy requirements. When there is no cellular energy demand, the sugar is transported to the liver where it is ultimately stored as fat. The problem with refined sugar is partly due to its addictive nature and to the rate at which it increases insulin levels. Refined sugars rapidly increase insulin levels in the bloodstream to counter the effects of the sudden rise in glucose levels. This leads to an inevitable crash in blood sugar levels which, in turn, leads to low energy levels and sugar cravings; a vicious cycle of high and low energy levels ensues.
Prolonged overconsumption of sugar can lead to a condition called Insulin Resistance, where the cells do not respond efficiently to signalling from insulin to absorb and utilise sugar as energy. This causes chronically high levels of blood sugar, increased fat storage, and is a factor in diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
Furthermore, insulin shuts off the body's fat burning mechanisms as the cells rely on sugar for energy. This prevents body fat from being oxidised and used as energy.
In addition, chronic overconsumption of sugar has been linked to (6) (7) (8) (9) (10):
- Lower Memory
- Lowered Hippocampal Microstructure
- Increased risk of Coronary Heart Disease
- Increased rate of cell death and rate of ageing
- Leptin Resistance (Leptin is the "I am not hungry" hormone)
Insulin plays a vital role in the human body, regulating blood sugar levels and signalling growth. It is the body's main anabolic (growth) hormone. It also increases the rate at which we store fat, a mechanism previously beneficial in ancestral times when humans needed to store fat as insulation to endure harsh winters; for most populations nowadays it is more of a hindrance as a result of unhealthy daily habits which progressively worsen insulin regulation (11).
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is sweeter and cheaper than "conventional" sugar. Fast food companies use it liberally to sweeten their "food" and make it more appealing (addictive) to their customers. In the manufacturing process of HFCS, corn starch obtained from (more often than not) GMO corn crops is broken down into corn syrup which is essentially 100% glucose. The enzymes alpha-amylase and glucoamylase - also genetically modified to withstand the high heats required for the production of HFCS - are added to the corn syrup which changes some of the glucose into fructose. Fructose, when ingested in high quantities, is transported to the liver where it replenishes liver glycogen and, once liver stores are full, is converted into fat and stored in the liver and adipose tissue (fat). High deposits of fat in the liver independent of alcohol intake (another factor which increases fatty deposits) is known as Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver (NAFL), a dangerous, yet common disease.
Note: Genetically Modified (GM) foods are not grown commercially in the UK. GM maize (corn) is allowed to be imported, though (12).
High fructose corn syrup has been shown to (13) (14) (15):
- Increase risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes
- Promote certain types of cancer
- Increase levels of plasma triglycerides
- Cause "leaky gut syndrome"
- Increase your intake of mercury which is poisonous
Cancer cells seem to feed on sugar (16) and the symptoms of diseases and infections such as eczema and candida, among many others, can worsen when sugar is consumed. When the digestive system becomes weak, your gut health is compromised and this has a powerful effect on the rest of the body (17). Yeast uses added sugar to grow and harmful bacteria weaken the wall of the intestines which increases gut permeability or leaky gut. As a result, the inflammation caused by sugar can lead to substances in the gut moving into the bloodstream. When this occurs, chronic diseases are likely to develop and if no changes are made to your lifestyle and diet, the same diseases will thrive in that environment (18).
Tips to help you reduce added sugar
Keep track of sugar intake using an app such as MyFitnessPal - Keeping a detailed track of what you eat can help you remain in control of your diet. It may also reveal you are consuming higher amounts of sugar than you realise as a lot of sugar is hidden in foods.
Learn the difference between complex and simple carbs - Knowledge is power and knowing more about nutrition can help you to make better food choices.
Cut down on added sugar e.g. in cups of tea and in recipes - The easiest way to reduce your sugar intake is to stop adding it to foods. Although this might sound like a no-brainer, as previously mentioned, sugar is often hidden in foods. Sauces, soups and even "low-fat" foods are often full of sugar. Always check the labels!
Get enough sleep - Being tired can lead you to crave sweet foods for an instant energy boost. Ensuring you have adequate, quality sleep should leave you feeling energised.
Drink plenty of water - Being dehydrated can cause sugar cravings. Some think that this might stem back from our hunger gatherer days where foods high in sugar, such as fruits, tend to be high in water and were the only available source of water available at times (19).
Keep an eye out for unfamiliar words on an ingredient list ending in -ose - companies are fully aware of the increased number of people trying to cut down on the amount of sugar they eat. In order to continue to make profit they cleverly try to disguise added sugar in the food and drink items they sell by using names which most people do not recognise as sugar. These often end in -ose but others such as cane syrup do not so make sure you do your research before buying and consuming these products.
Cook and eat food from scratch - Being in control of what you eat is the best way to avoid harmful ingredients. Prepare and eat as many meals yourself as possible from scratch.
Cut down on processed food such as biscuits, pastries, cakes, chocolate, sweets - Sugar is added to many unsuspecting foods to increase palatability. Remove processed foods from your diet and always check the labels!
Avoid boredom and stress - Sugar provides a quick hit of dopamine - the 'feel good hormone' - which we crave more in times of boredom and stress. Keep yourself busy with hobbies and other interests to avoid boredom, and try to discover coping methods in stressful periods.
Don't snack, eat proper meals - occasional snacking is normal and can significantly boost health in scenarios where it would be less healthy to fast or impossible to eat proper meals. It is still imperative that nutritious, whole foods are consumed in these snacks. Most of the time, it is better to plan ahead so you eat appropriate portions of healthy foods which make up full meals and then allow the body to properly digest as you work, travel, socialise, exercise, sleep etc. before eating again several hours later. This prevents constant hunger and the increased likelihood of snacking on something sweet when blood sugar levels drop.
It is universally accepted that added sugar is bad for our health. Aside from the associated health risks involved with a diet high in refined sugars, its addictive nature makes it extremely hard to control dietary intake. In fact, sugar has been shown to be as addictive as cocaine! (20)
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.