Who doesn't love sugar? It's sweet and delicious and gives us an instant boost of energy. Isn't it amazing how even, newly weaned, babies will turn their noses up at their plain rice porridge in favour of their pot of fruit puree! We are almost wired to love this heavenly stuff. However, we now know that not all sugars are created equal. Some are fine to eat and others wreak havoc on our health. This is why it can be very confusing to be given an instruction to 'avoid all sugar'.
Most sugars are simple carbohydrates, which means that they’re made up of one or two sugar molecules stuck together, making them easy to pull apart and digest. Complex carbohydrates, like those found in whole grains, legumes and many vegetables, are long chains of sugar molecules that must be broken apart during digestion. They offer a longer-lasting, more stable supple of energy. Naturally occurring fiber, protein and fat in many whole foods further slows the sugar-release process.
A rule of thumb is that the more processed and refined the carbohydrate, the faster it breaks down in the digestive system, and the bigger the sugar rush it delivers. That’s why refined flours, sugars and sugar syrups are such a hazard for our health.The body is beautifully designed to handle small amounts of sugar. However, refined sugars deliver a larger rush than our bodies were designed to handle.
In this post, I'd like to distinguish between the healthier sugars which are allowed on the MS diet and those that will cause a decline in our condition. Firstly, let's take a brief look at the various types of sugars found in nature.
Types of Sugars
- Sucrose: disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose (table sugar)
- Glucose: monosaccharide which is found in every living cell on the planet. If we don’t get it from the diet, our bodies produce it.
- Fructose: monosaccharide that is very different to glucose. Our bodies do not produce it in any significant amount and there is no physiological need for it. It is interesting to note that, this type of sugar has the potential to do the most damage.
- Dextrose: monosaccharide that is essentially the same as glucose (food manufacturers usually use the term “dextrose” in their ingredient list)
- Maltose: disaccharide made up of two glucose molecules
- Lactose: disaccharide found in milk. It is a combination of galactose and glucose
The Ugly Side of Sugar
Sugar & Nutrition
Interestingly, sugar in itself is not a food group. Though sugar, in some form, is naturally present in many nutritious foods, by itself, it contains zero:
- nutritional value
- healthy fats
Sugar is just empty and quickly digested calories that actually pull minerals from the body during digestion. I know that I feel terrible after having eaten sugar. I feel tired, lethargic, spaced out and oh so irritable! I do almost feel like it is leaching the life from my body.
Dr. David Reuben, author of 'Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Nutrition' says, “white refined sugar-is not a food. It is a pure chemical extracted from plant sources, purer in fact than cocaine, which it resembles in many ways. Its true name is sucrose and its chemical formula is C12H22O11. It has 12 carbon atoms, 22 hydrogen atoms, 11 oxygen atoms, and absolutely nothing else to offer.” …The chemical formula for cocaine is C17H21NO4. Sugar’s formula again is C12H22O11. For all practical purposes, the difference is that sugar is missing the “N”, or nitrogen atom.”
Yes, refined sugar is addictive. Many of you will have experienced this. You start off eating a few pieces of chocolate and before you know it you have eaten the whole slab! Something compels you to keep eating long after your tummy has tried to tell you it has had enough. Why does sugar have such a strong addictive effect on our bodies?
The answer is simple. It causes a release of dopamine in the reward centre of the brain. The more you eat it, the more rewarded your brain gets which prompts you to eat more. Some people are more susceptible to this effect than others and can develop a strong addiction to junk food and sugar. They have to have their daily sugar fix otherwise all hell breaks loose! If they try to stop eating it, they experience major detox symptoms. Not a healthy place to be in!
Sugar & Fat
Sugar is obviously used for many biologically processes which give us energy. However, the body only needs so much for it's metabolism requirements, especially if you are not an active person. So, what happens when you eat more than is required? The lovely hormone, insulin comes into play. It's primary job is to make sure blood sugar levels don't get too high. Too much sugar floating around in the blood is dangerous and will cause a host of health problems.
So, insulin carts off the excess sugar to the liver where it is turned into fat and stored. When large amounts of sugar are repeatedly eaten, this can lead to a fatty liver and other serious problems such as an increase in cholesterol levels and heart disease. Pretty scary stuff!
Interestingly, it is the fructose molecule that sets off this chain reaction. The oversupply of fructose is mainly from eating too much sucrose which is broken down in the body to form glucose and fructose. However, this harmful type of fructose can also be found in high fructose corn syrup (found in many refined foods) and agave nectar. The good news is that this does not apply to fruit and vegetables as it is almost impossible to over consume fructose by eating fruit.
Sugar Causes Inflammation
Inflammation underlies most modern illnesses, from heart disease to diabetes to MS. The normal function of inflammation is to help the body rebound from injury. For example, if you cut yourself whilst chopping vegetables, white blood cells race to the scene to mop up the wound, destroy bacteria and mend tissue. But when the injury is deep inside the body, such as inside the blood vessels of the heart, hidden inflammation can trigger chronic disease.
I'm sure you have realised by now, that sugar will worsen and even cause inflammation in the body. When blood sugar is high, the body generates more free radicals. Rogue molecules, that whizz through the body damaging cells, free radicals stimulate the immune response, which can inflame various tissues of the body including the nerves. For people with MS, eating refined sugar is a major health risk. Controlling your blood sugar is critical for maintaining an anti-inflammatory state which will help to reduce MS symptoms.
Sugary Foods to Avoid
Anything refined and unnatural should be avoided. These foods are not only laden with unhealthy sugars but most of them contain bad fats too. Here is a list of some examples:
- table sugar
- castor sugar
- icing sugar
- chocolate (try dark chocolate sweetened with xylitol)
- breakfast cereals (try gluten free porridge)
- syrup (except maple syrup)
- agave nectar (promoted as a healthy sugar alternative but is mostly made of the bad kind of fructose)
- high fructose corn syrup
- Artificial Sweeteners: Sucralose (Splenda), aspartame and saccharin. These chlorinated artificial sweeteners are not sugars, they are man-made chemicals. Avoid them, like the plague, as they can cause far more severe effects than sugar.
Sugars to Embrace
Finally, some good news! These sugars are safe to consume in reasonable quantities but don't overdo it and make sure you combine them with some good quality protein or complex carbs.
Fruit does contain fructose but when eating whole fruit, it is almost impossible to consume enough fructose to cause harm. Fruits are jam-packed with fiber and water which aids in the slow release of sugars. It also takes a while to chew and digest fruit. This means that the fructose hits the liver slowly. Fruit is also exceptionally healthy because it contains many nutrients and anti-inflammatory compounds. It also leaves an alkaline residue on the blood which is vital because disease cannot thrive in an alkaline environment. So, a big thumbs-up for fruit sugars!
Honey is what I would call a super sugar. It has some wonderful health benefits including, antibacterial and anti fungal properties. And, get this, it has as many antioxidants in it as spinach! The glucose in honey is absorbed by the body quickly and gives an immediate energy boost, while the fructose is absorbed more slowly providing sustained energy. It has also been found to keep levels of blood sugar fairly constant. Be sure to choose 100% raw honey for maximum benefit. I use it in my herbal tea and often in my cooking and baking.
The main thing that sets maple syrup apart from refined sugar, is that it also contains some minerals and antioxidants. It contains calcium, iron, potassium, zinc and manganese. It also contains twenty-four different antioxidants. Make sure to get 100% pure maple syrup not just maple flavoured syrup which can contain refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Just remember though, that maple syrup still has sucrose and fructose in it even although it has many more health benefits. So, it needs to be eaten in moderation. Just a little - as a treat!
Palm sugar is a natural sugar made from the sap of the coconut plant. It has a lovely caramel flavour and contains some excellent nutrients: iron, zin, calcium and potassium. It has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar which means that it is absorbed more slowly and doesn't have the same onslaught on the liver. It does, however, need to be eaten in small amounts as it is still a sugar.
Stevia is technically not a sugar but a highly sweet herb derived from the leaf of the South American stevia plant, which is completely safe in its natural form. I often use stevia as a sugar substitute in baking and it works well. You don't need a lot because it is super sweet. Much sweeter than regular sugar.
Date sugar is made from dried dates. The fruit is dehydrated and then ground to produce the sugar. It retains many of the nutritional benefits of dates and has a rich sweet flavour that makes it an ideal alternative to brown sugar. The downside is that it doesn’t melt and is difficult to dissolve, making it unsuitable for use in drinks and some baking recipes. It's still tasty in gluten-free bread recipes.
Xylitol looks and tastes like sugar, but contains zero fructose, fewer calories and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. It can be classed as a sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols are like hybrids of a sugar molecule and alcohol molecule. Their structure gives them the ability to stimulate the sweet taste receptors on the tongue. It is found in fruits, in small amounts which means it can be considered natural. Xylitol is generally well tolerated, but some people do get digestive side effects when they consume too much.
I often buy dark chocolate that has been sweetened with xylitol. It doesn't quite taste the same as sugar-filled chocolate but it is great to be able to enjoy my guilty pleasure without feeling guilty!
Summing it up
Refined sugar is not ok, even in moderation. It is a highly addictive substance that can cause a variety of health issues. It is pro-inflammatory which means it increases inflammation and will certainly make your MS symptoms worse. It will also cause you to gain weight and increase your cholesterol levels. So, if you haven't given your favourite chocolate or sugary drink the boot, then you need to seriously start the process. Luckily, there are some fabulous sugar alternatives which are natural and yummy. I have loved discovering them and experimenting with cooking and baking. Being active also goes a long way toward vanquishing excess sugar in the bloodstream. So, work hard on getting your blood sugar levels as stable as you can. It's one of the keys to recovery!
As usual, I would love to hear your comments and feedback so drop me a line when you have a spare minute!
Chat to you soon!