The paleo diet typically shuns sugars and there is lots of growing press about sugar being the enemy and not fat. However, there’s sugar in lots of food – occurring naturally – so does that mean you need to stop eating strawberries? Well – yes and no.
Different kinds of sugar
First off, there are many different types of sugar: glucose, fructose, sucrose and galactose to name but a few. They are different in their makeup – glucose, fructose and galactose are monosaccharides and sucrose is a disaccharide. Disaccharides are made up of monosaccharides (think of the “di” as being double and the “mono” as being single) – sucrose (standard table sugar) is a combination of glucose and fructose.
Fruit has a high concentration of sugar (the fructose kind), but it also is generally high in other nutritional value (fibre / vitamins / antioxidants) so it has some great things going for it. If you want to shoot for fruits that are low-ish in sugar content hit these ones up:
- Raspberries – high in fibre but relatively low in sugar
- Bananas – actually pretty high in sugar content, but packed full of potassium and magnesium (great for your muscles), so limit yourself to one every couple of days and you’ll be fine
- Watermelon – high GI and relatively high sugar but great for hydration
Now what if you want to add some sweetness to make a cake / asian stir fry sauce? There are quite a few solutions you can use which may be high in sugar content, but they’re natural. Try Dates, Maple Syrup, and Honey to name but a few.
What sugars should you avoid? Added Sugar versus Natural Sugar
Really this comes down to the difference between added sugars and those that naturally occur. If you eat fruit in moderation it’s not going to have any major negative effect provided you’re already of average health (and not trying to deal with diabetes for example). My dad, who suffered from diabetes, used to argue with the doctors who told him to eat less strawberries on this basis but the doctors, unsurprisingly, were right. If you have any sort of pre-existing health condition you should make sure that you monitor your sugar intake from naturally occurring sugars.
That being said, if you’re not in that position, there’s nothing to stop you eating those that naturally occur. The ones you want to avoid, are the “added in” kind…
The first type of sugar you should be avoiding is the significantly processed kind – the very white, fine cane sugar that comes in cakes, chocolates and all kinds of hidden places. Ideally you want to be in a position where you never have to actually buy sugar in packs. Don’t think that this will only appear in the things you expect though, my top 5 secret sugar culprits are below:
- Fruit juice – don’t be fooled by the name, not only will it have significantly higher numbers of the fruit in the juice (meaning you’re consuming 4 oranges instead of one) but there is usually added sugar too
- Yoghurt – unless it’s greek or natural (and even sometimes still then) it’ll have a high sugar content
- Ketchup / Tomato Sauce – it used to be one of my favourite condiments, until I discovered how high in sugar it was…
- Salad Dressings – don’t bother buying these, make your own from vinegars / lemons / limes and all the natural goodness in the fresh aisle; they’ll taste better too
- Anything that says it’s “Fat Free” – take out the fat and you need to replace it with something to make food taste good and make you feel full – and what did they replace it with? Sugar.
High fructose corn syrup… Everyone has heard all about this – it’s not so prevalent in Australia but in America it’s in pretty much everything that comes in a can, and it doesn’t have a great impact on your health. It’s pretty similar to standard table sugar that you would buy from a store – made up of fructose + glucose. Added to soft drinks (and ketchup) it is the equivalent of adding spoonfuls of sugar to your food. Something interesting that I learned the other day is the suspected rationale for why Coke has just so much sugar in it – it’s actually to hide the taste of the high amount of salt in the soft drink. It makes you pee more (it’s a diuretic) and add the salt to it (and therefore your body) and the more you drink, the thirstier you’ll be – and the more Coke you’ll buy. But with the salty taste, it’s difficult to see customers going back for more – in comes the sugar. The primary difference between HFCS and “normal sugar”? Price. HFCS is much cheaper than standard sugar.
My advice to you – if you’re buying any sort of packaged good, look at the label before you put it in your shopping cart – that’s the best way to determine if there is added sugar in your food. Sure, it takes a bit longer, but your overall health (and how you feel) will thank-you for it. For the most part though, you’re best to stick to this key principle:
If it swam in the sea, walked on the ground or grew from the ground and is colourful, then you’re good to eat it.
On a side note, it occurred to me the other day that farming of more sugar cane is contributing to both deforestation of the Amazon and to obesity, so if you consume less sugar, there will be less demand which will lead to less farming and therefore less obesity and a better environment. Everyone wins!
Some useful links for more reading / watching:
NY Times – How The Sugar Industry Shifted the Blame to Fat: