Sugar has been in the headlines a lot recently. What with the sugar tax being imposed (which was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget on 16th March) and many celebrities and ‘foodies’ proclaiming they have “quit sugar”.
Let’s be clear here, it is IMPOSSIBLE to quit sugar. Your body needs glucose to function, end of.
What people are cutting out are mainly refined sugars (so the white stuff) and in some instances unrefined sugars. If you were to completely remove sugar from your diet, you would basically have to stop eating.
30-70% of your energy needs to come from carbohydrates, which, when broken down become glucose. Not only does glucose (along with other things) power your body, it powers your brain. Your brain simply will not operate without it.
Simple carbs like white starches (white potatoes, white bread, white rice etc.) and refined sugars are very short chain molecules which are used immediately for energy. Complex carbs (sweet potatoes and whole grains for example) are longer chain molecules which your body has to break down into their short chain counterparts. These complex carbs are what is recommended on a low GI diet (GI stands for glycemic index) because they keep you fuller for longer and do not give you that sugar high or ‘spike’ then the quick drop we have all experienced when we’ve consumed sweets or something very sugary.
The addition of highly refined sugars should definitely be curbed from our diets as they have no real nutritional value, are addictive, and are one of the main causes of childhood obesity (hence the sugar tax), but natural sugars like those found in fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates are essential for growth and nutrition. The reason why these sugars are better for you is because they come alongside fibre and other micro- and macro-nutrients which your body needs to stay healthy – yes, fructose (which is a natural fruit sugar) isn’t very good for you on its own but consumed in the form of a piece of fruit it is perfectly acceptable.
We all like to have treats and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we need to be educated about what we are eating and the things we should avoid.
Celebrities etc. are role models to many people out there and I feel they need to be more careful about their choice of words when it comes to their diet changes. Seeing “I quit sugar” in bold font on the front of a glossy magazine in front of a picture of a tanned and beautifully honed body is inevitably going to make the general populous assume that they need to cut out everything that has any form of sugar in it.
I’m passionate about food in all its forms, but I’m also passionate about ensuring that people are educated about it so they can make informed choices about what they are putting into their bodies. Yes, I do consume sugary drinks (especially if I have a migraine), and I will have sweet treats but I am aware of what it is going to do to my teeth, sugar levels, etc., and I have made an informed decision about it as opposed to just being told by the media et al what to and what not to eat or drink.
There isn’t anything wrong with having a can of coke or a piece of cake once in a while as a treat, but they most certainly aren’t things we should be consuming on a daily basis. Quitting sugar needs to be more about consuming more fruit, vegetables and whole grains and less about removing whole food groups from our diets.
Here Comes The Science Part
Now, I don’t want to bombard you all with science - just because I find it interesting doesn’t mean you will too. Thing is, I think it’s important sometimes to look at certain things in a scientific way to understand them more.
Last time I mentioned the low FODMAP diet which I’m currently undertaking to try to get my IBS under control.
For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a diet that was created by researchers at the Monash University in Australia. They found that these FODMAPs are poorly absorbed by the bowel and therefore stagnate causing bloating, wind, irritation of the bowel and in turn constipation and diarrhoea.
FODMAP is an acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. (Try saying that ten times when you’ve had a skinful!). These are basically carbohydrates that the body struggles to process. All carbohydrates are broken down into sugar (glucose) to fuel your body, but certain types can cause irritation in the gut and can exacerbate symptoms of IBS.
The four main FODMAP groups are as follows:
Certain foods are very high in their respective FODMAPS and should be excluded or avoided for 6-8 weeks to try to reduce the inflammation in your gut. This is NOT a long term solution to IBS or any other type of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), but a good way of starting to assist in getting IBS under control. As symptoms begin to improve, you can start to re-introduce foods. By doing this and monitoring your reactions to these foods, you can see if there are particular food items that may be a trigger for your symptoms which you can therefore avoid on a long term basis.
Examples of high or very high FODMAPS that should be excluded to begin with are onions, garlic, wheat, honey, lactose (found in milk), apples, baked beans, cauliflower, mushrooms and a lot of sweeteners such as molasses, sorbitol and xylitol (this is found in a lot of chewing gums and mints).
Excluding complete food groups long term is unwise as your body needs a balance of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in order to function to its optimum level.
In the next few posts I will be giving you some low FODMAP recipes and also discussing other ‘fad’ diets and how these might affect your body.
There has been a lot of talk recently about so-called Super Foods. There have been countless studies, television programmes, blogs, articles etc. covering the topic with not much evidence either way.
I wanted to throw my tuppence into the ring and talk about my views on these foods.
Firstly, let’s look at some of the foods which are being classed in this group:
▪ goji berries
▪ oily fish
▪ pomegranate juice
▪ green tea
First up, Blueberries. Blueberries contain vitamin C, fibre, manganese and other antioxidants, they are also a good source of vitamin K. There are claims that blueberries can assist in protecting against heart disease, some cancers and can contribute to the improvement of memory.
Goji berries have been used in Chinese medicine for more than 6,000 years which, one would assume, would mean they have earned their super food label. They are purported to boost brain activity, support a healthy immune system, protect against cancer and heart disease and even increase life expectancy. These little desiccated berries contain vitamin C, vitamin B2, vitamin A, iron, selenium and other antioxidants.
Chocolate (mostly dark chocolate) has been connected with cancer protection and stress relief due to the sources of iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc along with antioxidants contained within cocoa (chocolate in its raw state). The interest in these associations was triggered by studies on peoples of Central America. The Kuna Indians of Panama drink cocoa as their main beverage and have very low blood pressure. This sparked attention as high blood pressure is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke.
Oily fish has been discussed in the news for a considerable amount of time. Fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are believed to aid against CVD (cardio vascular disease), prostate cancer and age-related diseases such as vision loss and dementia. According to research, Eskimos, who eat mainly oily fish (which contains vitamin D, protein, B vitamins, selenium and is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acid) had fewer than average heart attacks and strokes.
Apparently, wheatgrass has a higher nutritional content than any other vegetable. Purported to protect against inflammation, improve circulation and build red blood cells, it contains chlorophyll, vitamins A, C and E, iron, calcium and magnesium.
Pomegranate; a good source of fibre, vitamins A, C and E, iron and other antioxidants has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Believed to be useful in the prevention of heart disease, high blood pressure, inflammation and some types of cancer.
We’ve all heard about the nutritional benefits of green tea, packed with antioxidants, B vitamins, folates, potassium, magnesium and caffeine. It’s been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine for a whole host of ailments including headaches and depression. More recently it has been associated with aiding weight loss (by boosting metabolism), reducing cholesterol and fighting cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Broccoli in its many forms has been linked to reducing high blood pressure, fighting cancer, CVD and diabetes. As an excellent source of Vitamins C, A and K, folate, calcium, fibre and beta-carotene, this humble veg is being hailed as a “nutritional showstopper”.
Garlic, famed for its power to repel vampires, contains vitamin C, vitamin B6, manganese, selenium and allicin (an antioxidant). It’s been intimated that it could be a valuable tool against high blood pressure, CVD, cholesterol, colds and even some cancers.
Beetroot has been used historically for medicinal purposes. Containing iron, folate, nitrates and magnesium this earthy purple root was used to treat fevers, constipation and skin problems. More recently it has been linked to lowering blood pressure, enhancing exercise performance and preventing dementia.
At first glance, these health claims are pretty convincing. Who doesn’t want to combat cancer, boost their immune system and protect themselves against age-related diseases? The problem we have, is that not enough research has been done on some of these foods to truly test their status as ‘Super Foods’. When we take goji berries as an example, one of the last studies carried out was in 2008 on a group of only 34 people. Such small test groups do not provide nearly enough scientific evidence to back up claims of these so-called health benefits. Again, with wheatgrass (which many of us have seen in films and TV shows as something that will help in all manner of ailments) has barely had its surface scratched when it comes to scientific evidence. Studies have been carried out, yes, but in such small test groups, that it’s near impossible to support the claims that it is more nutritious than any other fruit and vegetables.
There is, so far, very little evidence that blueberries can prevent or combat cancer, and evidence to support other claims are inconclusive.
Looking at these so-called Super Foods in more detail, I think it’s utterly impossible to label a particular food stuff as ‘super’. When you take a balanced diet at face value, all foods (and I’m even including junk food here) can be considered super. Eating too many of one type of food is detrimental to health; even too much water can kill you. We need to look at foods not in their individual states, but how the inclusion of them into a balanced diet will help you become healthier. Try adding blueberries to your morning porridge or cereal. Have broccoli as an accompaniment to your steak or add it to a stir fry. Throw a shot of wheatgrass into your morning smoothie. Put some pomegranate seeds onto pulled lamb or atop a pavlova, have roasted beetroot alongside your roast potatoes with your Sunday roast. Have some salmon for a weeknight dinner flavoured with green tea!
ALL foods are super in my opinion, if it gives you joy it is super. The trick here is balance everything. Once you’ve got that balance right, you’ll be the one who is super.
*If you want any more information on super foods, take a look at the following page on the NHS website. I have used this for some of my scientific evidence: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/superfoods/Pages/what-are-superfoods.aspx