Sugar is not a treat!

I’ve officially declared war to refined sugar and I’m on a mission to raise awareness about its effects on our health (mental and physical). Refined sugar is a sneaky vilain, highly addictive, insidious … and yet so delicious, which is precisely where the issue lies in.

What’s the difference between natural sugar vs refined sugar?

I’m not (yet) a nutrition expert, but here is what I’ve learned throughout my research – and I’ll simplify.

Natural sugar comes in fruit, along with fiber, water, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients which help fight diseases and improve health. It’s a carbohydrate that is broken down to provide energy to each cell of the body, to supply the brain with glucose, and to deliver fuel for muscles and organs. Your body needs it to function well, and most importantly it knows how to process it.

On the other hand, refined sugar (called sucrose) comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, which are both severely processed to extract the sugar. It’s an “empty food”, it doesn’t benefit the body in any possible way as it has absolutely no nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fats or amino acids. The body can’t process it, it’s stored in the liver as fat.

In any case, whether is natural or refined, sugar is sugar so you should watch your intake.

Where does refined sugar hide?

I was discussing with friends the other night, and they thought they had a low-sugar diet because they drink their coffee black and never eat sweets or cakes. That is a good start indeed, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t consume sugar daily.

Sugar is e-very-whereeven in so-called healthy food. The Food Industry adds chemically produced sugar – mainly high fructose corn syrup (the devil itself) – to most processed foods and drinks.

Let’s see a few examples of products that contain added sugar, and the list is far from being exhaustive:

  • Packaged breads (including “whole grain” kinds)
  • Granola bars (even the ones that says ‘super duper healthy’) and protein bars
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Crackers
  • Canned soups
  • Tomato sauce
  • Salad dressings
  • Sweetened yogurts
  • Ready meals
  • Bottled juice, sport drinks

At first glance, there is nothing wrong with this list of foods, and that’s precisely why it is scary! Most people consume these products without knowing that they contain lots of sugar.

How much added sugar can I consume daily? 

To give you a rough idea, according to the American Heart Association, the maximum amount of added sugar you should eat in a day are 9 teaspoons (36 g) for men and 6 teaspoons (24 g) for women. I’m not speaking in terms of calories because calories from an avocado are much different than calories from a chocolate bar. Just keep in mind that it’s not the number that counts but the source.

I’ve analysed a few nutritional facts labels just out of curiosity:

  • 100% Orange Juice (in a carton): 12 g of sugar for 120ml = 3 teaspoons of sugar
  • Low-Fat Granola: 14 g of sugar for 60 g = 3,5 teaspoons of sugar
  • Salad dressing : 5,5 g of sugar for 2 tablespoons = 1,5 teaspoons of sugar
  • Canned tomato soup: 9 g for 230 ml = 2,2 teaspoons of sugar

A glass of juice + a small bowl of low-fat granola and you’ve already exceeded your daily amount.

What’s wrong with too much refined sugar? 

Obviously, sugar is the first enemy of your teeth and your bum, but not only. Too much refined sugar is also harmful to the joints, skin, liver, heart, pancreas, kidneys, mood and sexual health.

Research have shown a clear link between refined sugar and killer diseases such as type-2 diabetes, cancers (cancer feeds on sugar!) and heart diseases. Sugar is also responsible for high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Have you ever heard of fatty liver (actually typical of heavy drinkers)? It literally means your liver fills with fat, which makes it hard for it to work well. This then causes inflammation, and therefore increases your risk for developing a number of chronic diseases. 

Finally, you know, that belly fat that’s so difficult to get rid of? It’s sugar! It’s that sneaky vilain, hiding there because the body can’t do anything with it.

How is refined sugar affecting the brain? 

Sugar is one of the biggest causes of food addiction, and it has serious impact on the brain. It works the same way as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine: it makes the addict feel good with it, and empty without. It triggers the same area of the brain called the reward system, the one that tells you: Have that, it will make you feel good… Come on, have some more! You’ll get a nice kick, but it never lasts long before you need the next intake. You get a sugar rush, then a sugar crash. It also impacts your mood as refined sugar causes you to experience energy highs and lows, and sugar cravings. Does it sound familiar? Watch this Ted Ed video on how sugar affects the brain, it explains it well.

Here is a piece of evidence: if someone addicted to sugar stops sugar altogether, they’ll experience withdrawal symptoms such as a splitting headache, fatigue, cramps and nausea… just like drug addicts!


How can I avoid refined sugar?

To be really honest, unless you have a plant-based diet free of any kind of processed and refined foods, I reckon it’s difficult to avoid refined sugar completely. On the other hand, you can definitely start by reducing your consumption.

If you make small, simple changes to your diet, it’ll be easier to keep them up. Here are a few:

  • Buy whole foods (fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, wholewheat pasta/rice, etc.);
  • Make your own food, whether it’s tomato sauce, salad dressing or birthday cake;
  • Make fresh juices/smoothies rather than buying bottled juices (plus, do you really think there is Vitamin C in juice that comes in a carton?)
  • Cut down sugar in your coffee/tea: go from 3 teaspoons of sugar to two, then one, then none (I’ve done it with tea and it worked; I’ve adapted my taste buds to accept less then no sugar);
  • Add fresh fruit to yogurt, cereal or oatmeal instead of adding sugar;
  • Enhance foods with spices (cinnamon and ginger are my favourite) or with extracts such as almond, vanilla, or lemon;
  • Have more protein and fibre;
  • Don’t keep treats in your house – out of sight, out of mind!

Here a few things to bear in mind when you go grocery shopping:

  • Read the nutritional fact label to track down the amount of sugar. Pay close attention to the quantity per serving. For example, the recommended serving for breakfast cereal is 30 g; that’s tiny tiny, no one eats 30 g of cereal for breakfast! See what I mean? Check this short video out (How much sugar of cereal do children eat?), it’s self-explanatory.
  • Every product labelled low fat is actually full of sugar. When the Food Industry decided to get rid of the fat, it had to replace the calories with something else, and sugar does that perfectly.
  • Sugar comes in different fancy names, hunt them down in the list of ingredients when you buy a product: molasse, corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, lactose (in general if it ends in “ose,” it’s sugar).

That being said, I believe it’s important to indulge yourself and keep on enjoying sweet foods once in a while. Have an ice-cream with your friends on a hot summer day, share your colleague’s birthday cake or eat your grandma’s traditional dessert. Make it the exception rather than the rule so it remains pleasurable and guilt-free!

Think big, start small!


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