Do we Need Sugar at all?
For the past two or three decades, food manufacturers have bombarded us with low fat products, all intended to help us eat more healthily. The trouble is, that what many of these foods lack in fat content make up for in sugar portions. And, with obesity numbers on the rise, there’s no doubt that we are a nation with a collective sweet tooth. As with fat, though, the sugar message is complex and the language confusing – good sugars, bad sugars, fruit sugars, refined sugars.
Sugar is basically our body’s fuel. We don’t work without it; every muscle and cell in our body uses it when we want to do anything, such as growing, repairing and exercising. However, this important fuel doesn't necessarily start off as pure sugar when it passes our lips.
Food is made up of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, fibre and a variety of different vitamins and minerals. Carbohydrates are made up of sugars and are known as either simple or complex. Simple carbs are made up of one or two sugars that are easy for the body to break down and use quickly – these are found in foods such as white bread, white pasta and many breakfast cereals. Complex carbs are, as their name implies, more complex in their make up, with more and varied bonds of sugars. Our bodies have to work harder to break them down, which means we don't get such a quick 'hit' from the sugar, rather a more gradual release – which is a good thing!
Our bodies are very good at regulating the balance between using and preserving energy, but it is worth being kind to your body and helping it as much as you can to remain 'steady'. If you have an understanding of the different types of sugars, and how our body uses them, it will hopefully help you understand why your food choices are so important.
Sugars come in a number of forms, but an understanding of glucose, fructose and sucrose is most useful, since they are the most common and most readily used by the body.
Glucose is our primary source of energy and most carbohydrates are broken down (eventually) into simple glucose. When your blood sugar levels rise, insulin is released from the pancreas, which helps your cells transform the sugar into energy. As a result, blood sugar levels drop again. With a balanced diet of complex, slow-releasing carbs, this process occurs all the time and at a steady pace, keeping your body at a consistent level of energy, with no peaks and troughs.
This is another simple sugar that is found in fruit, honey and various corn syrups and sugar alternative products. It is absorbed directly into the blood stream during digestion, but does not stimulate insulin production. This means that fructose does not have an impact on blood sugar levels and is, instead, processed by the liver. However, once the liver is at capacity, it has to store the remainder as fat. So, moderate levels of fructose are often good, especially from foods such as fruit, which give you additional vitamins, minerals and fibre. However, the excess is difficult to burn off.
This is sugar as we know it – caster, granulated – and is made up of both glucose and fructose. Sucrose is extracted from cane or beet sugar plants and then refined into the sugar that we buy in the supermarket. This refining process strips the plant extract of its natural vitamins and minerals. In large quantities, sucrose has a negative impact on the body because the glucose causes an immediate rise in blood sugar levels, while the high level of fructose places strain on the liver, making it more likely that our bodies will put on fat.
All about the glycaemic index
Your glycaemic index (GI) level is interesting and worth looking out for if you want to know more about how complex the carbs are that you eat – bearing in mind that complex carbs are generally better for you.
The index is measured from 0-100 and usually uses glucose – which has a GI of 100 – as its reference. Slowly-absorbed carbohydrates have a low GI rating (55 or below), and include most fruits and vegetables, milk, some wholegrain cereals and wholemeal bread, pulses and basmati rice.
However, for fit and healthy individuals who exercise a lot, it is not necessary to avoid all high GI foods. This is because fruits such as bananas have a very high GI, but are brilliant immediate energy and mineral providers before, during and after exercise. It is worth using a bit of common sense with the GI, but it gives a good reference point for quick and slow-releasing foods.
So, what sugars should you be using to help fuel your exercise, and which ones are best avoided?
- wholegrain pastas, rice, couscous, oats and other grains
- all vegetables
- fruit, but only in moderation. You can almost taste the high fructose fruits, such as melon, banana and grapes, but they are good at giving you the energy you need before exercise and can help with recovery. If you have severe blood sugar problems, or are diabetic, then these fruits should be eaten sparingly, or seek medical advice as part of your exercise and diet regime.
- fizzy drinks
- most cordials and squashes
Sugar is an important part of a balanced diet and there are ways to treat yourself without hitting the sucrose. So long as you are exercising regularly then your body will also be able to cope with the levels of fructose. Here are a few of our favourite sweet treat recipes: