As the sugar debate rages on and governing bodies rethink current guidelines we asked the UK's leading nutritionist, Dr Marilyn Glenville all the questions you really want answered when it comes to sugar...
Sugar isn't just causing us to overeat, it's also doing untold damage to our immune systems and skin says Dr Marilyn Glenville. She explains how we can turn back the clock, stay healthy and cut back on sugar...
Does sugar age you?
Yes, it is aging. It reacts with protein, creating advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). These substances cause skin to be wrinkled and cell structures to harden. If you think of the way arteries harden to cause coronary heart disease a similar process takes place in the cells of the skin.
Are some sugars worse for you than others?
When sugar is contained naturally within food you’re also usually taking in a lot of fibre, which slows the digestion of the sugar and causes less of an impact on blood sugar. Refined sugars are where the problems are.
Is it ever too late to save your skin?
I would always say it’s never too late for lifestyle changes. While sugar speeds up aging, adopting healthier habits will in turn start to slow this process – whatever your age. Our bodies are really adaptable in that way.
Are there any foods that help to counteract the effects of excess sugar?
Yes, the thinking now is that we should eat a rainbow. It’s the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables that protect us from free radical damage, which causes us to age faster and can increases the risk of things like heart disease and cancer.
Our bodies are oxidising all the time – it’s like we’re rusting! In different colours of fruit and vegetables you'll find different antioxidants. For example, beta-carotene in carrots, lycopene in tomatoes - the more variety we have across both fruit and veg the more protection we provide our bodies.
How does sugar impact the immune system?
We have to think of sugar as being empty calories with no nutritional value. As well as the increased risk of things like type 2 diabetes, eating too much refined sugar creates more inflammation in the body, which can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Another big concern is that when blood sugar levels drop, stress hormones are released and so it’s common to feel a lot more anxious and tense as a result. That in turn can affect the immune system, thyroid function, energy levels and digestion. The increased release of these hormones from eating too much sugar can also cause the body to hold on to fat, particularly around the stomach area.
What is your opinion of substitutes such as stevia, xylitol etc?
Fructose (found in many natural sweeteners) tends to have a greater impact on the liver and, instead of causing an insulin spike, sits in the liver and may lead to other health issues such as high cholesterol.
Artificial sweeteners are often used to cut calories and won’t cause an insulin spike. However, research has shown that they can actually increase appetite and therefore lead to weight gain. This is because when the body receives a sweet hit we are expecting calories, so when they aren’t delivered we seek out more food to satisfy our energy needs.
With natural sweeteners like xylitol, stevia etc, you have to be careful as they can be heavily processed with added ingredients. For example, stevia may contain added fructose (fruit sugar) so it’s very important to read the labels.
Are there any buzz words people should look for on the labels?
Yes, look out for any kind of extra sugars, so for example fructose or maltodextrin are common additives. If you’re buying something like stevia that’s all you want to see in the ingredients list.
I’m more inclined to use syrups, brown rice syrup or maple syrup for example, which are just the natural food itself. I think, if eaten in moderation, they’re generally better than a lot of the substitutes.
This article was last reviewed on 25th March 2015 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.
Find out more about Dr Marilyn Glenville and look out for her Women's Wellbeing Weekends coming soon to Champneys health spas.
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