These are among the most common misconceptions about sugar. You will hear folk saying them often in defence of their eating habits.
It's a sad but true fact of human life that the minute you tell someone you don't do something, they feel condemned and then seek to justify themselves. The GAPs diet is no different. Conversations go:
Us: 'We are on a sugar free diet'.
Response: 'Oh, I only eat biscuits on Sunday's', or ' I don't put sugar in my tea anymore.' OR, you get the above statements from those who are open sugar eaters.
Be warned, if you change your diet, then be prepared to handle such conversations.
So are these statements true? Does it matter. Is it just a matter of burning it off and brushing it off our teeth and it does no other harm?
Sadly (for at heart we are all sugar lovers to some degree) they are not right.
We will look at the subject from various aspects.
First, what is sugar?
Sally Fallon in 'Nourishing Traditions' describes how carbohydrates (which are made up of sugar and starch) are made by green plants in their leaves by the action of the sun, carbon dioxide and water which is called photosynthesis - remember those biology lessons? When digested it is broken down into two components, fructose and glucose - glucose being the main blood sugar and fructose being fruit sugar.
So if sugar is made by a natural process and is in many natural foods we consume, from milk, to fruit, surely it can't be bad for us?
Sally Fallon goes on to say that as the body uses glucose for all of it's actions, then it could be said that we must have it to keep alive. Hence you could argue the above statements are true. However she says that although the body needs glucose, we don't actually need to eat sugar, or lots of carbohydrates in order for our bodies to make glucose. Some traditional diets include hardly any carbohydrates, eating mainly proteins and fats and yet these peoples are amongst the healthiest. Diana Schwarzbein explains that our
physiology depends on proteins and fats to produce hormones and regulate them. How you balance your hormones throughout your life will affect your (health). my addition Since hormones, including insulin, depend on fat for normal production and functioning, eating fat is essential for our survival.
In other words, our bodies can't do without fats. They can do without refined sugar and high doses of carbohydrates.
In many doctors opinions it is the amount of carbohydrates eaten and the types that matters. Many of the carbohydrate foods we eat these days are refined. In other words, they have been stripped of their natural vitamins and minerals. As Dr. Natasha Campbell Mc.Bride says,
It's when we start tampering with natural foods that we start getting into trouble. ...Our bodies were not designed to have these changed foods... (See ref. below 1. P.105)
If we look along the supermarket shelves we see that most of these refined products that have been changed from their natural state through refining come in the shape of cakes, biscuits, crisps etc... Basically, carbohydrate foods.
What does she mean by 'trouble'?
Back to Sally Fallon, who explains that natural foods come parcelled up ready made with everything our bodies need to digest them - the vitamins, minerals and enzymes, protein, fat and fibre. However by refining foods we strip them of these essential parts. So when we eat refined foods, our bodies have to find the minerals, vitamins and enzymes from somewhere, so they call on reserves.
Consumption of sugar and white flour may be likened to drawing on a savings account. If continued withdrawals are made faster than new funds are put in, the account will eventually become depleted. (See ref. below 2. p.21/22)
She says that some may go for longer before they feel the effects (depending on our genetic make-up which none of us know), but the effects will surely come in the form of illness.
What happens when we eat sugar?
To go back to our biology lessons, Our body has an in-built blood sugar regulation system. It secretes the hormone insulin into our blood to control the amount of sugar (glucose ) in the blood at any one time. This involves a finely balanced system of hormones, including those from the thyroid glands and the adrenal glands. The role of insulin is to keep your blood sugar levels at a safe level, protecting the brain from receiving too much sugar which would damage the brain cells.
When we eat natural sugars and starches (i.e. in whole foods like nuts, fruit etc..) as part of a meal with good fats (like butter from grass fed cows) and protein, they are slowly broken down, entering the bloodstream at a steady rate over a longer period of time. This will keep everything else balanced leaving us feeling physically and emotionally well. So this is how our bodies should work.
However, these days many of us (probably most!) succumb to the very great temptation to consume refined food stuffs. After all - that biscuit makes us feel good for a minute doesn't it? And a bought cake is so much quicker than having to make one. And chocolate in so many different guises is so attractive! When we eat them alone, especially without good fats and protein, they enter our blood stream in a rush. This in turn floods our blood with sugar. In kicks our bodies regulating system, creating a high supply of insulin and other hormones to bring our blood glucose levels down to a safe level. What's wrong with that? we ask. Surely that's what our body is supposed to do, isn't it? Well, if it was just occasionally, it might not be such a problem, but when it happens time and time again, several times a day perhaps, it eventually upsets our finely balanced hormone system. Some components become on constant 'high alert', while others get worn out. As Sally Fallon explains, it is made worse by the fact that diets high in refined carbohydrates are the very ones that are short of vitamins, minerals and enzymes from natural whole foods, which are essential for keeping our hormones in good working order. She says that once our hormone system is disrupted, we open the door to all manner of complaints: 'aging diseases (my addition - diseases that should only come in old age, but are happening to younger folk these day to a greater degree), allergies, obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, learning disabilities and behavioural problems.' (see source below, p. 22)
‘The lower you can maintain your blood glucose levels in a healthy and functional way, without experiencing low-blood-sugar symptoms, the better off you are. Those people who are optimally healthy should maintain a range between 70 and 85 mg/dL or lower; this is equivalent to no more than 1 teaspoon of sugar, or about 5 g or 20 kcal, total. Keep in mind that the body is adamant about maintaining the minimal necessary levels of glucose at any given time because glucose is inherently damaging to vessels, organs and tissues in the body. The less glucose that is absolutely necessary the better.’ ~ Nora Gedgaudas,’Primal Body, Primal Mind
And if you think a teaspoonful is too small, read this, from a chap who has done his maths!
From the same chap we get this:
What really gets kind of scary is when you look at the amount of carbohydrate in, say, a medium order of McDonald’s fries compared to the sugar in your blood. Remember, it is the job of your digestive tract to breakdown the starch and other complex carbohydrates, which are nothing more than chains of sugar molecules, into their component sugars so that they can be absorbed into the blood. An order of medium fries at McDonald’s contains 47 grams of carbohydrate. 47 grams of carbohydrate converts to about 47 grams of sugar, which is almost 10 teaspoons. So, when you eat these fries you put 10 times more sugar into your blood than that required to maintain a normal blood sugar level. If you figure, as we did above, that one quarter of a teaspoon is all the difference between a normal blood sugar and a diabetic blood sugar, the 10 full teaspoons would be 40 times that amount.
In other words, it is not just diabetics who must be careful of how much sugar they consume. We must all be watchful. Diseases from diabetes to Graves disease to heart attacks do not just suddenly come on. They are the result of what we have been putting in our mouths and our lifestyles and depending on our genetic constitution ~ (which as I've I have said, none of us really know where our weaknesses are until they develop) problems will occur sooner or later. Some folks resistance will be greater if their parents and grandparents were relatively healthy and they will think for years they can eat as much sugar as they like. Others will keel over at a much younger age.
Maybe now we can begin to get a glimpse of why maybe our carbohydrate dependent diets are not such a good idea. Many of you reading this (and of course our family included) are already suffering the results of consuming such a diet in the past. Unfortunately, most of us do not think about what we eat until our health suffers. That was certainly true for us. We thought our bodies just 'got on with working' and no-one told us that what we ate mattered. Our journey towards healthier eating has been gradual, stepping up a gear only as various health manifestations became obvious.
I hope that once we transition off the GAPs diet, we will be a lot more aware!
Next time we will look more at this subject, looking at another confusing issue - the difference between calories and nutrition.
1. Campbell - Mc Bride, Natasha. The gut and Psychology Syndrome. Cambridge, UK: Medinform Publishing, 2010
2. Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions; The Cookbook that challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the diet Dictocrats. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, Inc, 2001
3. Schwarzbein, Diana and Deville, Nancy. The Schwarzbein Principle; The truth about losing weight, being Healthy and feeling younger. Deerfield Beach, FL:Health Communications, Inc. 1999