Consider this common dietary lifestyle that many of us do every day:
Wake up, get a coffee or tea, maybe with sugar or a saccharin substitute, perhaps there’s not enough time for breakfast so you skip either the meal or grab a piece of toast, or maybe a pastry, muffin or sandwich on the way to work.
You may feel hungry mid-morning and have a couple of biscuits or a ‘healthy breakfast’ bar. If you do eat at lunch it could be another sandwich or a slice of pizza that’s easy to eat so you have time to do a little shopping, get to the bank or Post Office.
Mid-afternoon, a colleague is handing round cakes or sweets because its their birthday. By the time you commute home you are very hungry and munch a packet of crisps while you wait for a ready meal to cook, possibly a pasta dish because it’s quick and easy; it’s been a hard day and you deserve a glass of wine while waiting and perhaps a top up with the meal. This meal might lie heavy on your stomach or you might feel a bit peckish later and have a chocolate – or two, a bowl of cereal. Knowing you need to get to bed as you have an early start in the morning, you make tracks only to lie there and get stressed because you can’t get off.
You might not think this cycle is affecting you particularly when you are young, but over time, it’s a health disaster.
In this 24/7 life that’s taken as normal today, the habit of skipping meals and eating foods that lack nutrients but are high in refined carbohydrates, can create systemic damage from mild insulin resistance to diabetes.
If you have seen my blog on good sleep routine habits, you will know that we thrive best in health and well-being when we are in tune with our body’s natural rhythm and feed it to power our optimal running. Likewise we need to regain what, when and how we eat that is in harmony with our unique genetic susceptibilities.
Food is much more that something to quell hunger – it is both information and medicine.
Information – in that it can tell our cells to work their energetic magic – or it can tell them to give up and age faster.
Medicine – because a wide spectrum of nutrient dense foods provides us with all we need to prevent ill health and promote well-being on all levels.
A poor diet creates a spectrum of complications – diabetes, elevated blood sugar, blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, cholesterol problems; poor gut health, auto-immune responses, digestive conditions, low mood and depression, skin problems, lethargy, snappy irritability, dental decay and gum disease – there are more but that’s more than enough to trigger alarm bells.
The world consumes more refined sugar now than ever before: Manufacturers have mendaciously added sugar to many of our processed food and drinks.
The cynical exploitation of satisfying our brain’s pleasure center drives us to addiction – and makes guaranteed profits for shareholders. Along with Big Pharma, these multinational companies have immense power over us and our health through stoking our potential for sugar addiction. Sugar, whether as cane, beet, glucose, maltodextrin, high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, invert sugar, rice syrup, molasses and caramel, (take a careful look at the list of ingredients, often in very small print, on any processed foods or drinks before you buy). They will appear on processed pasta meals, pizza, savoury dishes, cereals, sauces – and often where you least expect them.
Just 2 slices of bread used in a sandwich or as toast is equal to 2 teaspoons of sugar. A quarter slice of pizza contains a whopping 20g of sugar or 4 teaspoons. One glass of apple juice has 10g of sugar equal to 2 teaspoons. A can of cola while having 140 calories still equates to 40g of sugar or 10 teaspoons. According to the NHS no adult should be having more than 30g of sugar a day (7 sugar cubes). Children aged 7 to 10 should have no more than 24g a day (6 sugar cubes) and children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g (5 sugar cubes).
The rise of fruit juice and smoothie consumption has been meteoric, promoted as being ‘healthy’ for us. The truth is that fruit is great as Nature intended but when only the squeezed juice is used, the fruit sugars per serving are concentrated and even ‘with bits’, nothing of the fibre that is beneficial remains available. That glass or carton of juice is equivalent to maybe eating 8 oranges, or, put another way 8 teaspoons of sugar.
Remember, the body doesn’t care where the sugar comes from, whether the healthier choice of a piece of fruit or a cake, it will still raise insulin levels to unhealthy levels – and the more you have the more you crave ‘something sweet’ the next time and the time after that …..
Earlier on in the article I listed some of the possible carbohydrate foods that might be consumed on any given day. The body will react exactly the same to these because in order for the energy in carbohydrate to be released, first it has to be broken down into sugar. Small amounts of insulin are released into the bloodstream, leading to an increase in blood sugar levels.
Insulin is a hormone that acts like a key. It allows blood sugar to leave the blood and enter our cells, where it can be used as energy or stored as fat. If you were going to run a marathon then you would fuel your body with a carbohydrate, like pasta, because you would need and use up that sugar as energy straightway. If you planned a night in with a box set, then it’s not a good choice!
(Useful to know is that small amounts of insulin are also released before any sugar enters the bloodstream. This response is known as cephalic phase insulin release. It is triggered by the sight, smell, and taste of food, as well as chewing and swallowing. So just by looking at that cake on sale while you buy your coffee will weaken your ability to say no. It hardly helps us when we are already addicted! However, understanding this process will give us some control over it.)
Any energy that is not used is converted into fat, which is stored in the body for use when needed. Its easy to see that with our more sedentary lives sitting at desks, slumping on the sofa to watch television, etc, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to use this stored energy and gain weight while also raising our insulin levels, the precursor to all our chronic health conditions.
Finally, something else to make clear. Often people will associate weight gain with sugars in the more conventional sense and think calories.For example, they choose an artificial sweetener to add to tea or coffee, choose a diet free soda, a low-calorie squash, a low-calorie ‘bread’, ‘biscuit’, ready meal or yoghurt. Again, looking at the list of ingredients you might see Aspartame, Saccharin, Acesulfame Potassium, Neotame, Sucralose. These are all synthetic sweeteners that make things taste sweet without any extra calories – and the brain will respond in the same way as if you had eaten a couple of biscuits and raise insulin levels – which still causes us to pile on the pounds! Stevia, Maple Syrup, Date Syrup and Honey are all sugars and though a few might have marginal health benefits, these benefits can be found in greater quantities in real, nutrient dense foods without causing a sugar spike, and without compromising our present and long-term health. Also with alcoholic drinks which are sugar laden with no nutrient benefits; choosing a white wine rather than a spirit may have a lower calorie count but in terms of sugar, they are equally poor choices adding to the sugar intake of the day.
All the foods I’ve mentioned have what is called a high glycemic index and we need to make low glycemic food choices our priority to break this addiction cycle.
In order to make informed dietary changes we need to understand how we can control this special region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, our pleasure centre, which has been responsible for our choosing foods that spike our blood sugar levels, the foods we are addicted too.
So here’s the good news:
We all have the tools to break free from this addictive cycle and feel vibrant and energised. It’s simpler than you might think.
It starts with focusing on real nutrition. If you fuel your body with enough of the right foods and nutrients, you won’t want the stuff that makes you feel rubbish.
What does this food look like?
The basics of nutrition are extremely straightforward, despite the confusion from some doctors, and hype from celebrity cooks and Insta images posted online.
The winning combination is like a food pyramid with plant foods at the base + healthy fats + good quality protein sitting on top of each other in proportion to quantity needed – for EVERY MEAL. Remember we are fuelling our body and healing it 24/7 too!
This will form the basis of creating blood sugar balancing meals that will keep you nourished and satiated. Help you regain control and overcome addiction to sugar related choices, help reverse the damaging effects sugar consumption has caused.
In a future post I’ll suggest a few meal plans, and cover when and how to eat to get the highest possible nutritional benefits within our natural day’s cycle of being active and sleeping.