Many people know the pitfalls of sugary foods like sweet tea, candy and soda. What most don’t understand, however, is that the sugar molecule in these foods is the same molecule – bonded with many other sugar molecules – in white flour.
“The biggest issue with sugar is that it’s pure energy with no nutritive value,” says Susan Wyler, MPH, RDN, LDN, of Triangle Nutrition Wellness in Chapel Hill. Refined starches made of white flour, such as white bread, pretzels and pasta, have been processed to digest quickly. During the refining process, the outer layers, or the husk and bran, are removed from whole wheat grains, removing valuable vitamins, minerals and protein. The resulting white grains, which are almost pure carbohydrate, are crushed and then chemically bleached, resulting in white flour.
Wyler says that digestion of these starches begins in the mouth; by the time they reach the stomach, the starches have become sugar. When these sugars reach the intestine, they are broken down further and absorbed into the bloodstream. Insulin is then released from the pancreas to move sugar into the body’s cells to be used for energy. However, in people that have Type 2 diabetes, this process doesn’t work very well and sugar builds up in the bloodstream. The body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin or the pancreas stops producing enough insulin. Thus, persons with Type 2 diabetes have to limit their sugar intake.
In the past, dietitians advised individuals with diabetes to stay away from fruit because it is relatively high in sugar. However, we now know that when sugar is paired with fiber, it mediates the absorption of sugar. The sugar in fruit is less concentrated than sugar in a chocolate chip cookie, for example, and bound with valuable fibers, vitamins, minerals and protein.
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Sugar has many aliases and, according to Prevention magazine, precisely 57 different names, including fructose, agave nectar, molasses, brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup and sucrose. Nowadays, sugar is ubiquitous and permeates much of our food supply, even in places you might least expect, like ketchup, barbecue sauce and many items labeled “low fat.”
How much sugar do we really consume? Below are some astounding statistics and, just to give you some context, one 12-ounce can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar:
▪ In 1822, Americans consumed approximately 1.8 teaspoons per day
▪ By 2012, each American consumed 30.6 teaspoons per day, which equates to almost 3 cans of soda every day
▪ Children are also ingesting more sugar – as of 2012, the average American child consumed a whopping 32 teaspoons per day, or about 3 ½ cans of soda daily
Why do we want sugar? Essentially, sugar in the bloodstream “stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine. In this sense, it is literally an addictive drug.” (National Geographic)
Wyler has found that sweet tea is often the hardest thing for people living in the South to give up. She recommends that clients eliminate both sweet tea and soda and, instead, offers a refreshing alternative. Here’s her recipe: a glass of seltzer, a big squeeze of lemon or lime, and two teaspoons of Darbo, an Austrian fruit syrup. The seltzer mix offers less sugar than what is found in either sweet tea or soda and no high fructose corn syrup. Another option would be to add a small amount of fruit juice to sweeten the seltzer mix.
For those who are used to caffeine in the morning and add sugar to their coffee, Wyler suggests a slower process of weaning: add two teaspoons of sweetener to your coffee the first week, then add a teaspoon and three-quarters the second week, and keep reducing the amount by one-quarter teaspoon over a couple of months. Wyler says it’s amazing the number of clients she has seen that are able to eventually wean themselves from sugar in this way.
Wyler admits to loving double chocolate gelato and says that when it comes to sugar, you don’t need to be a saint. It’s what you do most of the time that counts. It is best to stay away from red velvet cake, for example, but there are two golden rules to follow if you’re going to treat yourself. One – keep the portion size small. Remember that cake, or anything sugary, is a treat and doesn’t need to be supersized like so much of our food in the U.S. And two – don’t eat the cake by itself. If you do, the sugar will fast track into your bloodstream, causing your insulin and blood sugar to rise exponentially. Instead, have that cake after a meal – your body will thank you for it.
Holly Hough, Ph.D., works with the Clergy Health Initiative at the Duke Divinity School. You can contact and follow her at facebook.com/drhollyhough.