Over the past few months I’ve noticed a worrying trend in many of my naturopathic patients – and that is an irrational fear of sugar – any type of sugar.
In my blogpost “Secret Sugar” I wrote about the issues of eating refined white sugar, and the problems with foods that contain high amounts of sugar, even when they are marketed as being healthy. Hidden sugars are definitely a problem in many foods, although the foods that are causing these concerns are normally processed in one way or another. As I wrote in that article: “We were born to eat sweet foods, our cells are fueled by glucose, and we are drawn to sweet flavours – but it is the type of sweet foods that we consume that makes all the difference. Wholefoods that contain a full complement of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and fibre – nourish health, they don’t destroy it. Eating real food, not merchandise, is the answer – and being able recognise the difference is the key to avoiding the pitfalls of sugar addiction.”
It is unfortunate that the message about the health dangers of eating processed sugar has been misinterpreted by many to include the natural sugars found in wholefoods. We need carbohydrates (sugars) for energy, especially for brain function. Without enough carbohydrates in our diet our body turns to breaking down either protein (muscle and organ tissue) or fat for energy. This is the premise behind many weight loss programs that rely on the body moving into ketosis (using protein and fat for energy) rather than carbohydrates. Although this does work for short-term weight loss, it is not a sustainable way of eating in the long-term. Burning protein and fat is a dirty and wasteful way of making energy, producing many toxic and acidic by-products, leading to potential health issues such as kidney damage. Restricting healthful carbohydrates such as fruit and vegetables is a recipe for disaster.
Which brings me to a recent patient who did a Digestion Health Test with me as she had been having difficulties with constipation and bloating, as well as increased immune dysfunction such as allergies and lingering colds. When I received the results for this lady there was a glaringly obvious imbalance in a crucial area of her report. Little-known substances called Short Chain Fatty Acids were alarmingly low. These substances are produced in a healthy bowel by our good bacteria (probiotics) fermenting dietary fibre and natural sugars. SCFAs are absolutely essential to a healthy bowel ecology. They provide fuel for the cells in the colon and have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. One of the main type of SCFAs is butyrate, and in a low butyrate environment, bowel cancer is more prone to develop.
With this comprehensive digestion testing service I offer a twenty-page report analysing a person’s results, as well as a fifteen-minute phone call consultation to discuss the report and answer any questions. During the consultation with this patient we talked about her incredibly low SCFAs and how this result would be the main cause of all of her symptoms, including the immune issues that come from having an unhealthy ecology in the bowel. Gut bacteria form an integral part of the immune system.
One of the first areas that I look at when I see a very low SCFA result is the diet. Is there enough dietary fibre and natural sugars to support healthy probiotic colonies, which will in turn produce optimal quantities of SCFAs? My first question was about fruit, how much fruit did my patient eat each day? The answer was “None. No, I stay away from fruit, there’s too much sugar in fruit, so I avoid it.” OK. My next question was about starchy vegetables. “How often do you eat potato, sweet potato, pumpkin or corn?” A big laugh. “I haven’t eaten those foods for ages, there is too much sugar in a potato, I would never touch one!” Then I asked about other types of carbohydrates, “What about rice or oats, quinoa or lentils?” Again, “Nope, sorry, I don’t eat those foods either.” A pattern was starting to form here. This lady had listened to the “sugar is bad” messages that have (quite rightly) been highlighted in the media of late. However, she didn’t take the time to differentiate between the healthful and natural types of sugar in wholefoods, and the processed variety. In her quest to improve her health by avoiding sugar, she had destroyed the delicate ecology of her bowel. If she continues along that path of carbohydrate avoidance her health issues will only intensify, and her risk of bowel cancer will be increased.
When looking further into her report, I could see very clearly how two of the four main strains of probiotics had been completely destroyed in her bowel. There was zero Bifidobacterim and zero Lactobacilli Acidopholus. Strong probiotic colonies are essential for a well-functioning bowel, they lower inflammation, support the immune system, create fuel and energy for the bowel and interact with our brain chemistry. But if we don’t feed them properly, they can die. The flow-on effects to our health can be disastrous.
So, the moral of the story is to avoid an irrational fear of sugar and embrace the natural sweetness that is found in wholefoods from nature. You are not going to harm your health by indulging in the delicious flavours found in fresh fruits and other natural carbohydrate foods. In fact, they are absolutely necessary for life! Enjoy!