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Sweet relief? How sugar is killing us

Posted: 9th September 2014   |   6 comments

My favourite chocolate is Whittakers Almond Gold. I'm happy with Peanut Slab and Milk Chocolate as well, but Almond Gold is king (or queen if you prefer). I wouldn't even waste my time with Cadbury or anything budget, and what in the world is Willy Wonkas? There are few treats better than a good merlot and Almond Gold. On Sunday evening, I discovered that enjoying that treat is another little step in poisoning my body as surely as lighting up a few cigarettes. It turns out the mantras of "all things in moderation" and "calories in, calories out" ignore these two facts:
  1. our bodies were not made to process the amount of sugar we now have every day;
  2. we are blithely ignorant of the amount of sugar that is in our diet as most of it is hidden in everyday foods.
Nigel Latta has been doing a series of documentaries about significant social issues, and the last one was about sugar. It is a shocking and significant revelation that should change the way we live our lives.

We are all aware of chocolates, fizzy drinks, lollies and the other sweets are filled with sugar. But the more important issue is that almost all processed food we purchase also includes sugar, because it is cheap filler that rebalances the flavour removed when more expensive components are taken out. For example, a squirt of Watties tomato sauce has one teaspoon of sugar in it. Two slices of bread have half a teaspoon of sugar. A glass of Just Juice or Fresh Up has five teaspoons of sugar in it. Sugar is cheap. These decisions have been made by global food corporations to improve their profits; less cost in the ingredients means more profit from a sale.

Yet our bodies can only safely process a small amount of sugar. For men, it's nine teaspoons a day, for women, six teaspoons and for children, four teaspoons. If you had one 300ml bottle of L&P with your lunch, that is six teaspoons of sugar. Maybe you're trying to be healthy; if you had a pottle of Fresh & Fruity with your breakfast, that is four teaspoons of sugar. Our bodies were not made for what has become our everyday binge on sugar.

The impact of eating too much sugar is well-recorded (thanks to the Business Insider Australia for this summary):
  • Cavities: The connection between sugar and cavities is perhaps the best established. (Source: Journal of the American Dental Association, 2009; ISRN Dentistry, 2013; International Dental Journal, 2013)
  • Insatiable hunger: Leptin is a hormone that lets your body know when you’ve had enough to eat. In people who develop leptin resistance, this “I’m full” signal is never received, presenting a major obstacle for weight control. (Source: American Journal of Physiology, 2008; American Journal of Physiology, 2009; British Journal of Nutrition, 2011; Advances in Nutrition, 2012)
  • Weight gain: There are few routes to packing on the kilos that work as swiftly and assuredly as making large amounts of added sugars a staple of your daily diet. (Source: British Medical Journal, 2013; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2013)
  • Insulin resistance: High sugar can increase your body’s demand for insulin. When insulin levels are consistently high, your body’s sensitivity to the hormone is reduced, and glucose builds up in the blood. Most people don’t realise they are insulin resistant until it develops into full-blown diabetes. (Source: The American Journal of Cardiology, 1999; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2002; Nutrition & Metabolism, 2005)
  • Diabetes: In 2012, 280,000 New Zealanders had diabetes. Our numbers rise at a staggering 50 people a day! (Source: JAMA, 2004; Diabetes Care, 2010; PLOS ONE, 2013)
  • Obesity: one of the most-cited risks of excess sugar consumption. Just one can of fizzy drink each day could lead to seven kilos of weight gain in a single year. One in three New Zealanders are obese, and 50 percent of Māori and 70 percent of Pacific Peoples are obese. (Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004; JAMA, 2004; International Journal of Obesity, 2006; Obesity Reviews, 2013)
  • Liver failure: High doses of sugar can make the liver go into overdrive. Sugar is key in developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. (Source: Journal of Hepatology, 2007; Journal of Hepatology, 2008; World Journal of Gastroenterology, 2013)
  • Pancreatic cancer: high-sugar diets are associated with a slightly elevated risk of pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest cancers. The link may be because high-sugar diets are associated with obesity and diabetes. (Source: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2002; The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006; Annals of Oncology, 2012; International Journal of Cancer, 2012; Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Obesity, 2012)
  • High blood pressure: eating lots of added sugar has indeed been linked to high blood pressure. (Source: Hypertension, 2001; American Journal of Physiology, 2008; Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, 2010; Hypertension, 2012; Hypertension, 2012)
  • Heart disease: while smoking and a sedentary lifestyle have long been acknowledged as major risk factors, conditions associated with excess sugar consumption, like diabetes and being overweight, are also already known risk factors for heart disease. A CDC study of 11,733 adults concluded that there is “a significant relationship between added sugar consumption and increased risk for CVD [cardiovascular disease] mortality.” When participants got 17% to 21% of their daily calories from sugar, they were 38% more likely to die from heart disease than those who limited their calories from sugar to 8% of their total intake. (Source: Journal of Hypertension, 2008; American Journal of Cardiology, 2012; JAMA Internal Medicine, 2014)
  • Cognitive decline: Obesity and diabetes are both risk factors for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, so it’s no surprise that studies are beginning to find a link between excess sugar and these cognitive conditions. (Source: American Journal of Alzheimer’s, 2009; Journal of Gerontology, 2010; Behavioural Neuroscience, 2011; Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 2013; Nutrition Journal, 2013; Behavioural Neuroscience, 2013)
  • Gout: Uric acid is also a byproduct of fructose metabolization, and now newer research is suggesting that too much sugar could be a risk factor for gout as well. (Source: British Medical Journal, 2008; Advances in Chronic Kidney Disease, 2012)

I included all the sources (which you can find links to in the Business Insider article) because one of the arguments from the food industry is that the science is unclear. It is not in any way unclear. Sugar is toxic when you eat beyond what your body can process, and that amount is much smaller than we have been led to believe.

We need to fundamentally change our approach to our diet if we are going to change the outcome. The diet given to Nigel Latta by Dr Mikki Williden pretty much models what our diets need to look like: protein at every meal; minimally processed foods (think raw & natural foods); snack on proteins and fats like nuts and legumes between meals; drink lots of water; use natural fats rather than processed fats. Follow the link to get an idea of what that might look like on your shopping list!

There are changes that our government has to make, specifically putting a sugar tax on foods, starting with fizzy drinks. Healthy foods need to be cheaper than processed, high sugar foods. But in the meantime, we need to make changes at home. After watching this on Sunday, we watched it with the tamariki on Monday night. They were as shocked as we were. Consequently, we have committed as a whānau to stripping sugar out of our diets. In the last couple of days, that has meant that I have had no bread, no white rice, no cafe brownie or pain au chocolat, and no alcohol. I've eaten a lot more nuts and seeds, a bit of fruit, lots of vegetables, meat and eggs.

This will be very challenging. Our neighbours did this a few months ago, and it has been great to connect with them about tips and ideas. There is also a great database of nutritional data called www.fatsecret.co.nz that provides information about how much sugar is in things. This journey will be easier as whānau and as community and with the right tools. However, easy or difficult, it is a journey we absolutely need to make because the documentary demonstrated this is as much about the injustice of the food industry as it is the health of our bodies.

Leave a Comment

5th January 2015
Great article and very educational.
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