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The not-so-sweet truth about sugar: Healthy habits at Hart House

This week, I dropped into the Healthy Habits program that runs every Monday in the Hart House Reading Room from 12 to 1 p.m. Healthy Habits is a laid-back discussion about nutrition and tips for eating well and is led by a holistic nutritionist.

What I really liked about the event was that it was informal and thereby unintimidating. We all sat in the corner of the Reading Room on the couches and, in essence, had a chat. The topic varies week to week and you’re welcome to attend just one session or as many as you like, whenever you can. This past Monday, we talked about sugar – very timely if you ask me, given that Monday was also Halloween.

The word "sugar" is spelled out using table sugar.

Source: healthbubbles.com

Heather Allen, the nutritionist, shared some really staggering statistics with us. Did you know that based on current consumption patterns, it is estimated that one third of Americans will have type 2 diabetes by 2050? Type 2 diabetes is a disease that consists of poorly managed blood sugar levels due to reduced sensitivity to the hormone your body uses to stimulate uptake of sugar after a meal. Heather explained that type 2 diabetes comes on gradually, which is why it’s important that we’re making good decisions now, even though we aren’t currently affected (like eating right and exercising!).

The maximum recommended daily intake of added sugars is 25g per day – that’s about six teaspoons. Now guess how much sugar is in your grande pumpkin spice latte. The answer: 12 teaspoons! Makes it seem rather impossible to limit yourself to only six teaspoons in a whole day, right? Thankfully, Heather had some great tips for students looking to reduce their intake:

Choose complex sugars over simple sugars. Simple sugars are things like sugar, white bread, pasta, white rice, milk and honey. Complex sugars are found in beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, brown rice and quinoa for example. Your body processes these two types of sugars differently. Complex sugars offer sustained energy because your body processes them more slowly and they don’t cause your blood sugar levels to spike suddenly and then drop (“sugar crash”).

A picture list of complex carbs (sweet potato, whole grain bread, oats) and simple carbs (soda, donuts, white bread, cereal) is shown.

Source: ourbetterhealth.org

Do you tend to crave something sweet after a meal? I do! Heather’s tip is to make sure you’re hitting all the flavour/taste notes with your meal. If you have a bit of salty, sweet, sour and bitter on your plate, you’re less likely to experience that post-dinner sugar craving.

Add something bitter to your plate! Our ancestors’ learned to attribute a bitter taste with something harmful like poison, our bodies still respond in a similar way – by increasing stomach acid secretion, thereby boosting your digestion to “kill” whatever lingers in that bitter tasting food you just consumed. Pretty cool huh? Unfortunately, bitter is a taste that is seriously lacking in Western food, for many people their only source of bitter is their coffee or chocolate. Try some bitter greens!

A bowl of kale chips is shown.

Source: vergiespeed.com
My favourite bitter green is kale – in the form of kale chips especially!

Try to replace refined sugars with natural sweeteners, most of these do still have sugar in them, but they offer nutrients alongside that sugar content, whereas refined sugars don’t. Some of these natural sweeteners are apple sauce, molasses, dates, maple syrup and honey. We also talked about Stevia which is actually made from a plant and is super sweet compared to table sugar but is actually not sugar at all. You’ll notice it doesn’t taste quite the same, so Heather recommends starting with maybe sweetening with half sugar and half Stevia.

Stevia cubes and leaves are shown.

Source: medicalnewstoday.com

Try to make 75 per cent of your plate as colourful as possible, eat the rainbow. This technique will help you avoid those simple sugars and meet your nutrient needs! The example Heather gave for breakfast was that she’ll have two eggs and instead of complementing that with hash browns and toast (a very dull, beige plate), she’ll have some sliced tomatoes and some greens with a little olive oil and lemon juice. A meal like this will help you avoid that sugar crash and craving later on!

Finally, consider this quote I really loved from Heather’s discussion:

The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.

– Ann Wigmore