How much is too much sugar? Can spices help? 6 easy tips on when, why & how to reduce.
Juicy complex questions - allow me to diverge a little before I answer… I got a bit carried away this month. Bear with me - There’s a delicious recipe at the end and great tips on regulating blood sugar levels.
Remember the old nursery rhyme, What are little girls made of? “sugar and spice and all things nice”. Well…what was once considered a compliment, could in these turbulent, confusing, foodie times be considered a controversial statement, an insult even? Technically speaking, you’d be pretty unhealthy if this was your constitution and you’d need a truckload of spices to counteract the inflammatory properties of the sugar.
Today we look at sugar and a spice. Sugar, the demonised food, we are told to avoid at all costs and a spice, revered for its medicinal qualities.
So which spice shall we pick to balance our blood sugar levels and why should we bother? Let me start with the second question.
No matter your dietary bent, the cornerstone to healthy eating is regulating blood sugar levels. Our bodies LOVE homeostasis. It means that they do not need to work as hard and this reduces stress (including oxidative on our cells.)
Let’s begin with a quick science lesson - what happens when we eat “sugars”?
We eat carbohydrates or “sugars”, some healthy (vegetables, fruit, legumes & wholegrains) some not so (sugar and refined “sugars”, based on processed white flour such as cakes, biscuits, crackers, white pasta, supermarket breads & lollies, potato crisps, ice-cream etc)
Carbohydrates are broken down in our bodies to glucose (a simple sugar) which is our body’s energy currency. Levels of glucose increase in our blood.
The pancreas senses the rising blood sugar levels and secretes insulin, a hormone that attaches to insulin receptors on each and every cell in our body to signal the cell to open up and let the glucose in.
Glucose is let into the cells and there is a decrease in the level of sugar circulating in the blood. Blood sugar levels stabilise. The pancreas stops secreting insulin.
Eating fats (nuts, seeds, oils, butter) and proteins (meat, fish, eggs, tofu) does not result in an insulin response as these foods do not contain “sugars”.
But what happens when things go wrong in this system?
When a person’s diet is high in sugar and refined sugars, their pancreas has to work harder to make more insulin to signal the cells to open up and let the glucose in.
A balanced diet containing protein, fat and complex carbohydrates (fibre) which slows digestion, reduces the overall sugar load, slows the subsequent insulin response and ultimately helps to regulate blood sugar levels.
Without protein, complex carbohydrates (fibre) and fat, blood sugar levels spike and plummet, leading to fluctuating blood sugar levels, fatigue and lethargy, brain fog, sugar cravings, poor memory and concentration, candida & gut dysbiosis and increased risk of type 2 diabetes and many other diseases (not to mention nutrient deficiencies.)
Tip #1 eat more protein, fat and fibre In other words eat real food. This will help slow the transit time in the gut and slow digestion, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels, helps you feel satiated, keeps you fuller for longer and results in the slow release of glucose which sustains energy levels for longer.
If a person’s diet is seriously high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, over a long period of time, the pancreas simply gets tired and has a hard time keeping up and/ or the insulin response becomes numbed as insulin receptors become overwhelmed by the increased levels of circulating insulin. This can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. This is not good.
Type 2 diabetes used to be known as adult onset diabetes but the age is decreasing.
So how much is too much sugar?
Well let’s start with some statistics. The average Australian consumes 80g/ 20 teaspoons/ ⅓ cup of sugar every day. Yep! But let’s get something straight. I guarantee you that 95% of these hyper-sugar consumers would be unaware of how much sugar they actually eat. Most of this is sugar cleverly hidden in processed foods like breakfast cereal, fruit juice, muesli bars, sauces and baked goods. Once you eat this much sugar, your taste buds become accustomed to it and your sensitivity levels decrease.
Back to it. Let’s assume that 20 teaspoons is too many.
In March 2015, The World Health Organisation (WHO) released new guidelines on the consumption of “free sugars or monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.”
Note that sugar present in whole fruits and vegetables is not counted as free sugar as it comes naturally packaged with fibre, which slows digestion and absorption of sugars and balances blood sugar levels.
“A new WHO guideline recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.”
Some would say that 6 teaspoons of sugar a day is still too high and I tend to agree but let’s take a quick peek at how easily these hidden sugars accumulate. Number of teaspoons of sugar are shown in brackets.
Sugar content of some common foods Cereal 50g Kellogs Just Right/ Nutrigrain, Uncle Toby’s Plus sultanas & bran/ Healthwise for Heart (3¾) Weetbix crunch or fruity (2¾) Uncle Tobys Oats temptations, sultanas, apples & honey (4)
Muesli bars 50g - some bars are actually smaller / size adjusted for comparison. Uncle Toby Fruit Twists/ Leda gluten free all/ Go Natural yoghurt fruit and nut delight/ Be natural fruit & nut yoghurt coated (5) Kellogs KTime twists, LCMs, crunchy nut, Nutrigrain, Special K (3 - 4½)
Fruit Juice 250ml apple, orange, pineapple unsweetened (5) Tomato sauce 1 tablespoon (1) Bread, 2 slices (1) Fruit bread 1 slice Tip Top Cafe Raisin Toast/ Bakers delight Dutch fruit loaf (8) Low fat, fruit yoghurt snack size 100g (snack size) (3) Softdrink can 375ml Coke, Sprite, Tonic water, Red Bull (10!!) Tonic water (8)
Remember the limit is 6 teaspoons. And many people would consider these foods as healthy.
tip #2 read labels if you do eat processed food. Let me say it again, Read labels. Remember the % are based on Adult consumption levels and often the upper limits as opposed to healthy limits. (This is covered in my lunchbox classes.)
really good reasons to reduce sugar.
Body does not have to produce as much insulin to regulate blood sugar levels
Protects pancreas (where insulin is made) and insulin receptors against “burnout”
Increased energy levels without the peaks and troughs
Sustained energy throughout the day
Increased ability to concentrate & protection against foggy brain
Helps maintain a healthy weight
Helps maintain healthy skin
Cuts the sugar cravings
Decreases risk of dental cavities
Delays ageing process
Reduces all inflammatory markers (skin, arthritis, infection etc)
Protects against candida (thrush - oral, genital and systemic) and gut dysbiosis
Long term - protects against chronic disease such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and many other extremely unattractive long term health issues.
I don’t personally think that everyone needs to give up sugar but I do think that it sugar needs to be eaten consciously. So, if you really fancy a piece of cake, I say enjoy it and don’t worry if it contains sugar or honey or maple syrup or rice malts syrup - sit down and eat every mouthful and taste it, guilt free - just not every day.
Do worry about high fructose corn syrup, super sweet “natural” sweeteners, artificial sweeteners and hidden sugars. And if you have constant sugar cravings or if you have candida or gut dysbiosis, a trip to the Nutritionist or Naturopath may be in order.
My point is that with all these “healthy sugars” around, even super smart people can be tricked into overeating sweet treats because of their health claims. Please don’t be fooled by this. There is no one “healthy sugar” for everyone.
Overconsumption of any sugar will lead to health issues and no matter the sweetener, there is always an insulin response.
tip #3 eat sugar consciously (and do not exceed 6 teaspoons/ day.) Do feel free to aim lower and have a couple of sugar free days/ week. Try to get your sweet fill from whole fruit - 2 pieces a day (more if you are very active).
Segway back to the spice that we will pick to assist in balancing blood sugar levels, cinnamon. Cinnamon is a spice universally loved for it’s pairing with apples, pears, pastry and all things sweet um even donuts. And for good reason.
Cinnamon is the spice to help maintain healthy blood sugar levels and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine etc as a warming spice “to invigorate and move the blood”.
Cinnamon slows the digestion of carbohydrates, it acts on the insulin receptors to increase the uptake of glucose into the cells and speeds the rate of excess glucose being made into glycogen in the muscles and the liver. In these ways cinnamon helps to reduce circulating sugars in the blood.
Cinnamon has been found to be just as effective as the first generation diabetes drugs were.
Cinnamon, is naturally super sweet and if you do suffer from sugar cravings (real ones - that cause overconsumption of sugary foods and baked goods made from refined flour not just the desire for a piece of chocolate after dinner) you may like to try Cinnamon tea. It’s a delicious, herbal tea that not only satiates sweet cravings but also helps to regulate blood sugar levels.
tip #4 add cinnamon to your diet
Drink cinnamon tea.
Add cinnamon generously to all baked goods (1 tablespoon in Banana bread) Bliss balls, home made muesli, smoothies, crumble toppings, yoghurt etc
Sprinkle it on toast, porridge, stewed fruit, roast veggies and soups
Add cinnamon to savoury dishes too - it is often used in Mexican, Asian & Moroccan cuisines.
OK need a break? Get into the kitchen and whip up a little batch of these nom noms.
Cinnamon walnuts serving size ¼ cup 2 cups walnuts, soaked overnight in acidulated water 2 teaspoon ceylon cinnamon 2 - 4 teaspoons maple syrup
I do not have a sweet tooth so 2 teaspoons maple was great for me. The husband and kids like it with more. Suit yourself, start low and move up if you need to.
In a bowl large enough to hold the walnuts, mix the maple syrup and cinnamon, add walnuts and ensure they are really well coated.
Transfer to a baking tray that can hold the nuts in a single layer and roast at 120C for 15 minutes.
Turn nuts with a metal spatula. Cook for another 15 minutes.
Repeat this process until nuts are crispy but not dried out. This will take about 45 minutes. Store for as long as you can. My batch was gone before I could even take photos. Actually probably a good idea to double it.
Maple syrup is 75% sugar, but it contains loads of lovely minerals like manganese, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium, vitamin B2, antioxidants and polyphenolic compounds. AND even if you use the full 4 teaspoons of maple syrup, that is less than ½ teaspoon per serve and because it is combined with healthy fats and protein in nuts, not to mention the cinnamon, the sugars will be slowly digested.
tip #5 attend a healthy cooking class
If you'd like more cooking tips, yummy recipes and nutrition wisdom, there are some great cooking classes scheduled for the next few months including kids' school holiday classes. They all encourage a delicious, nutritious balanced approach to food. Please join me. Class schedule.
tip #6 consult your nutritionist
If you would like further advice on nutrition, including how to eat a balanced diet, reduce sugar cravings, improve energy levels, combat foggy brain etc contact your qualified nutritionist for a private consultation.