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For as long as most of us can remember fat intake has been blamed as the culprit in causing many health conditions. A more modern understanding is the fat is not as much of a bad guy as we once believed, and it is sugar and processed carbohydrates that should be in our crosshairs.
This week is National Diabetes Week and I thought it would be a good opportunity to have a conversation about the growing diabetes epidemic and sugar intake.
Today, approximately 70% of Australian adults are classified as overweight or obese. This is a fourfold increase since the 1970’s. Over this same time our fat consumption has levelled off or decreased and our sugar consumption has risen significantly. Interestingly, this same period saw many low fat products come into the market which effectively had the fat replaced by sugar to make them palatable. On average, we each consume 60g of sugar per day (that’s 14 teaspoons of sugar) which is at least triple what could be considered a healthy intake.
Basically, as a society, we have ditched fat in favour of sugar and have piled on the kilos. Obesity Australia reports that this poor diet cost our country $8.6 billion per year and costs thousands of lives. At least in part this issue has arisen because we were targeting the wrong dietary cause. Certainly, there other contributing causes (lack of physical activity, simply eating too much even of the right things, alcohol), but sugar is front and centre in causing many of the health issues we confront today.
At the centre of these health issues related to obesity and sugar intake is type 2 diabetes. It is estimated that 1.8 million Australians have diabetes, and 280 extra people develop diabetes every single day.
For those who are not aware, diabetes is basically a disease of carbohydrate metabolism where blood sugar remains excessively elevated. This leaves organs, blood vessels and nerve soakings in sugary body fluids leading to premature damage and breakdown. The health outcomes from this are potentially catastrophic. To paint the picture, diabetes in Australia:
And the list goes on.
The biggest problem is that we know all of this and still the case numbers continue to rise!
So, what can we do about it?
The obvious answer is that, if diabetes basically a disease where you body has a problem with metabolising and using carbohydrates then if we put less carbohydrates into our body then our body does not have to deal with them. Quite simply do not eat foods that cause your blood sugar to spike.
At this point it is important to understand a little about carbohydrates. Generally, this covers foods such as sugar, sugar products, flour products (breads, pastries etc), cereals, rice, fruits, and vegetables, among others. All carbohydrate foods are digested and enter your body as forms of sugar. All carbohydrates, however, are not the same. It is important to understand that once a carbohydrate-based food goes through a factory and is processed, it becomes more readily absorbed which means it will cause a greater rise in blood sugar. Clearly sugar and sugary products fit into this category but so does flour, white rice and fruit juices. The presence of fibre in the food (which is what processing removes) slows down the absorption of the sugar from your food. This part could be a very long conversation to explain the details but the point that ultimately matters is this:
Sugar and sugary products will cause the greatest rise in your blood sugar followed closely by processed flour products, processed rice products and processed fruit products, among others. Eating carbohydrate-based foods as they were grown, with their fibre intact will cause the lowest rise in blood sugar. For example, eating fruit is considered good for you because it still has its fibre intact and the sugar slowly is absorbed. Drinking fruit juice, on the other hand, has had its fibre stripped out and its sugar is absorbed quickly (in fact your get the same sugar spike as from soft drinks).
So, getting back to what we can do about it: The clear starting point is to reduce our sugar intake. Our body does not actually need it anyway.
We all know the obvious foods that are full of sugar. The cakes, chocolates, lollies, soft drinks, biscuits etc etc. And we get to choose whether we eat them or not, knowing they taste good but aren’t that good for us. Also, adding sugar to our coffee or tea can add up very quickly. Did you know, if you drink two cups of tea or coffee a day and you add 1 teaspoon of sugar each time you will consume 3kg of sugar over a year?!
But there are also many foods that are marketed to seem good that perhaps aren’t. These are the “hidden” sugars. Examples include:
Breakfast cereals – even many that are marketed as healthy contain up to 25% sugar.
Fruit Juice – a typical glass can contain up to 25g of sugar. Better off to just eat the fruit whole rather than drink it.
Sauces – If it tastes sweet at all it will have sugar in it. An average serve (30g) of tomato sauce contains 8g of sugar, an average serve of BBQ sauce contains 13g of sugar.
Muesli Bars – an average bar contains around 14g of sugar.
Yoghurt – flavoured and low-fat varieties contain around 20g of sugar per serve.
These are just some examples. The big advantage we have is that most foods in Australia have the sugar content written right there on the label. It might be small, but it is there. The other thing to know is if what you see on the supermarket shelf came from a tree or plant, the ocean or the paddock you are generally sure nobody has added sugar to it. If it evolved or was processed in a factory, then you need to check the label.
The second thing we can do about it watch our intake of other processed carbohydrates. The breads, pastas, breakfast cereals and rice products. Most of these have had their fibre processed out and are very rapidly absorbed causing spikes in blood sugar. The key here is to choose versions of these foods with high fibre contents. Choose brown breads with nuts and seeds, choose brown rice (husk still attached), and choose foods that come from a plant or a paddock not a factory.
If you are a little unsure or would like help with this, we are more than happy to help at the pharmacy. If there is a food that you like that you are unsure about we can help you find out. Even if you want to write down what you normally eat over a day or week, we can help identify problem areas and hidden sugars.
This is a very big topic that cannot be explained fully in a few short paragraphs. My intention here is to stimulate thought about what we put in our mouths. The saying that we are effectively digging our own graves with our teeth holds true for many in our country, but it doesn’t have to be so.
So, if you want a healthier, longer life - cut the sugar.