What happens when we eat sugar?
Encouraged by how successful my last post on food was with you all, where I shared my concerns about organic food and the knowledge of the nutritionist Mª Antonia Rodríguez, today we are back with a thorny topic: sugar.
When we talk about table sugar, or sucrose, which is the same thing, we are referring to white sugar. It is an empty-calorie food. In other words, it lacks fibre, vitamins, minerals and any other nutrient. But we don’t only find sugar in sucrose. It is also naturally present in many foods. The list is very long, beginning with carbohydrates (fruit, vegetables, cereals…) and dairy products, whose sugar is known as lactose, and includes many alcoholic drinks.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE EAT SUGAR?
Humans obtain energy from fats, proteins and sugars. The latter, when ingested, travel to the liver and are turned into glucose, one of the fuels for our organism. The crux of the matter is how our body reacts, depending on the origin of this glucose and its glycaemic index.
The glycaemic index (GI) of a food is its ability to increase the glucose circulating in the blood. This index will determine the secretion of insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas. This organ is responsible for ensuring that the glucose contained in the blood can penetrate the tissues of our body and be transformed into energy.
The higher a food’s GI, the higher the insulin spike. The high insulin spikes caused by sugar do not provide us with more energy; in fact, they do the opposite. They cause a very fleeting energy boost, which can mean that the brain does not receive the sensation of being full, and consequently, a short time later we feel the need to eat again. And not only that, the glucose that is not used as energy is converted into fat reserves, gathering not only on our hips or abdomen, but also in the walls of our arteries. This can help us to understand the many diseases that are caused by consuming too much sugar…
Among the foods with a high GI are carbohydrates. But don’t panic! You do not have to stop eating carbohydrates. Why? Because, in addition to vitamins and minerals, they contain marvellous fibre, which means that the GI is reduced, as if by magic. They neutralise the “insulin spike” and ensure that the energy we consume is distributed gradually and over a longer period of time. However, we do have to bear in mind that not all carbohydrates are assimilated in the same way. Refined carbohydrates act like sugar because they do not contain fibre. That is why it is so important to make sure that the carbohydrates we eat are 100% wholegrain.
We have added a list of foods and their GI to serve as a reference when you are choosing your food.
GI – Food
100 Glucose (we do not eat pure glucose, but we are using the index as a reference)
90 Cooked carrots
80 Honey (although it contains minerals and vitamins, it is pure sugar)
70 White sugar, white bread, white rice, pastries, cooked potatoes
60 Wholegrain rice, banana, cakes
50 Crisps, pasta, orange juice
40 Orange, apple, peach, pear
35 Wholegrain bread, full fat milk, yogurt, coconut sugar
32 Cherries, acacia honey
30 Wholegrain pasta, chickpeas, lentils, raw carrot
I try to avoid the high insulin spikes caused by foods with little nutritional value, and be aware of where the glucose I consume comes from to balance out my menus. For example, in a large evening meal, I choose either wine or dessert, because I know that both of them will give my body too much sugar. It is interesting how when you understand that what is happening inside your body depends on what you eat, you become much more aware of your food and it is easier to avoid vicious circles.
I am sharing an example given to me by Mª Antonia, which helped me to understand an even more complex concept: if you eat fat with sugar, the fat is dragged by the insulin spike and is directly turned into fat reserves, and not only into calories that we use as fuel, as would normally occur. For example, when we eat an egg flan, the fat from the yolk is added to the fat reserves by the insulin secretion triggered by the sugar in the recipe. If for example, we replace the sugar with a natural sweetener like stevia, with a GI of 0, this effect does not occur (in another post we will discuss natural alternatives to sweeten our meals). It is really important to be able to benefit from the nutrients of the good fats and keep them away from sugars.
Maybe because the explanation of why our body functions the way it does is complex, we find it hard to internalise these essential and necessary concepts that help us to nourish ourselves better. We hope that we have shared the information in a simple and easy-to-understand way. If you want to find out more, or if you have doubts, please leave your question in the comments section of this post. I will answer your questions with the nutritionist Mª Antonia in a video that you will soon find on my YouTube channel. Subscribe if you want to improve your eating habits and wellbeing.
Update – You can now watch the video where we answer all your questions in the new post.