SUGAR, GLUTEN + FAT: BAD FOR YOU (Or Badly Misunderstood?)
Sugar. Gluten. Fat. When it comes to healthy eating, it may be no surprise to see these three are up on the chopping block. It seems like the media is always throwing one under the bus for something or other. You’ve heard that these foods aren’t doing you any favours, but it seems like the information being tossed around is contradictory. One minute gluten is the worst thing to put in your body, and the next minute, it has it’s redemption. Someone is telling you to go fat-free, and someone else is telling you to load up on fat at every meal.
So should you eat gluten? Or fat? Or sugar? Well, it depends. (Not a satisfying answer, but an honest one.)
To understand how these foods are affecting you--and which of them you should be swapping out for healthier options -- it's important to understand what it’s doing in your body once you’ve consumed it.
When it comes to food, the source matters. Quality matters: not everything is created equally.
So let’s dive in and break this down.
HOW SUGAR AFFECTS YOUR HEALTH
It seems sugar is added to just about everything: store-bought salad dressings, tomato sauces, fruit-flavoured yoghurts. Added sugar is sneaky and almost imperceptible: it’s easy to get swept up in the sugar rush without even trying. Add in the consumption of sugar-laden drinks (like soda and juices) and processed foods, and you can see it’s pretty easy to go overboard.
It turns out those sugary treats are actually not so sweet, and eating too much can have a big impact on your health.
SUGAR CAUSES WEIGHT GAIN
While small amounts of sugar (and the occasional treat) are unlikely to cause problems to your health, excess amounts can lead to weight gain and excess body fat.
For example, added sugars like corn syrup and fructose (which are often placed in processed foods to enhance flavour) are high in calories but come without fibre and nutrition, which causes these foods to be less satiating. The result? You’re more likely to overeat these foods (which--aha!--is the goal of food marketers).
In fact, fructose specifically is capable of increasing levels of ghrelin--the hormone responsible for telling the body it’s hungry--and decreasing levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin. (1) If you’ve ever wondered why you can eat an entire bag of candy and not feel a dent in your appetite, this is likely why.
Sugary foods--like processed foods and sweet beverages--also tend to lack fibre. Fibre not only keeps the body feeling full, but it also works to regulate blood sugar by slowing down the release of sugar into the bloodstream. High-sugar diets can lead to insulin resistance, as the more sugar there is in the blood, the more insulin is produced to do the cleanup. Insulin increases to keep up with elevating blood glucose levels, but overburdened cells can’t keep up with the demand, so they start to ignore the insulin.
The pancreas, confused, creates more insulin to help out. As this cycle continues, both insulin and blood sugar levels rise, which can lead to metabolic syndrome, increased weight gain and diabetes. (2)
SUGAR CAUSES INFLAMMATION
Another negative consequence of sugar is its ability to cause inflammation.
One study of 29 healthy men found that even low to moderate sugar-sweetened beverage consumption led to increased inflammatory markers, including C-reactive protein, as well as insulin resistance. (3)
Yet another study found that not only does sugar consumption increase C-reactive protein (CRP) but that it stays elevated for up to two hours after eating. (4) This means your body is staying in a state of inflammation hours later.
Inflammation can also be the result of advanced glycation end products (or AGEs), which form when protein or fat combine with sugar in the bloodstream. (5) High levels of AGEs have been linked to inflammation, oxidative stress and ageing. (6)
Which brings us to the next point:
SUGAR CAUSES AGEING
One of the ways sugar can accelerate ageing is by the production of AGEs. Advanced glycation end-products accumulate in the skin as the body ages, where it damages collagen and breaks down the elasticity of the skin, causing wrinkles and fine lines. Furthermore, AGEs also leave your skin more vulnerable to oxidative stress and free radical damage.
Research shows that sugar can speed up that process: one study found that women who ate a diet lower in carbs and sugar had fewer wrinkles and healthier-looking skin than those who consumed more sugary foods. (7)
And it’s not just your skin that is affected by sugar. Sugar can also affect the ageing of your cells by prematurely shortening telomeres. Telomeres, structures at the tips of chromosomes (think of protective caps on the end of shoelaces) are responsible for adjusting the cellular response to stress: an unhealthy lifestyle shortens those caps, increasing the likelihood that cells will stop dividing and eventually die.
Sugar has been linked to an increase in the shortening of telomeres, which can accelerate ageing. (8) In fact, one study showed that drinking one standard-sized (20 ounces) sugar-sweetened soda was equated to 4.6 additional years of ageing. (9)
HEALTHY SWAPS FOR YOUR SWEET TOOTH
Cutting back on refined sugar doesn’t mean you can't indulge in sweet treats on occasion. The key is to really make it count. The biggest culprits to watch out for are the hidden sugars found in beverages and processed foods: high fructose corn syrup, barley malt, glucose, dextrose and maltose are a few to know.
Instead, be deliberate about when you're eating something sweet. And when you can, choose healthier alternative sweeteners. Here are some healthy sweeteners to keep in your pantry:
- Honey: high in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory
- Maple Syrup: contains B vitamins, high in antioxidants
- Coconut Sugar: lower on the glycemic index
The thing to note with sweetness is that your body gets accustomed to it and it can be a shock when you stop. The good news is though that this doesn’t last long and after 2-3weeks of cutting back on sugar most report that their sweet tooth cravings significantly decrease.
SHOULD YOU AVOID GLUTEN?
Gluten has a bad rap--but does everyone need to be cutting it out of their diet? Is this just a trend?
First of all, what is gluten? Gluten is actually an umbrella term for prolamins (proteins) found in wheat, barley and rye--the main prolamins being glutenin and gliadin. These proteins are hard for the body to digest, and they’re able to cross the gut barrier and get into the body, where they can trigger inflammation.
CELIACS. NON-CELIAC GLUTEN SENSITIVITY
While Celiac Disease, an inflammatory condition that causes intestinal damage, nutrient malabsorption and digestive distress, is the most severe form of gluten intolerance, it’s not the only form--and digestive discomfort caused by gluten has been seen in non-celiac people. (10)
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) is becoming more recognized and is estimated to affect up to 13% of the population. (11) In fact, while 98% of those with Celiac have been found to have the HLA gene--a genetic marker associated with gluten intolerance--about 60% of those with NCGS also have this gene, compared to 30%of the general population. (12) So just because you test negative for celiac, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily able to tolerate gluten.
SYMPTOMS OF GLUTEN INTOLERANCE
While gluten intolerance can take many forms, the most common include bloating, abdominal pain and digestive upset. In fact, up to 83% of those with gluten intolerance experience abdominal pain, and 50%experience diarrhoea. (13)
SHOULD YOU GO GLUTEN-FREE?
There are certain groups of people that could benefit from a gluten-free diet. Those with autoimmune diseases, for example, may do better on a gluten-free diet. One theory for this is molecular mimicry, in which foreign antigens (like gluten) look similar to the body’s own antigens, so continued exposure to gluten triggers an antibody response to the body’s own cells. (14)
Gluten intolerance has also been associated in people with digestive disorders, such as Crohn’s, IBS, or ulcerative colitis--and as such, they may do better with eliminating gluten from their diets. (15)
Unsure of whether or not you’d benefit from a gluten-free diet? Try cutting it out for 30 days and notice how you feel. Make sure you’re choosing whole, unprocessed gluten-free foods (like buckwheat, oats or quinoa) and limiting gluten-free processed foods--they tend to be as unhealthy as their gluten-filled counterparts!
FAT: FAB OR FAD?
When it comes to eating fat, the question isn't necessarily if you should, but rather where is your fat coming from?
We saw the demonization of fats in the 90s, where everything was low-fat (and consequently high-sugar) and everyone was swapping out their butter for “heart-healthy” vegetable oils. But that came with its own set of problems.
THE PROBLEM WITH VEGETABLE OILS
Vegetable oils are quite literally oils that have been extracted from plants, like corn, soy and canola (rapeseed). And as you can imagine, these plants don’t actually have a lot of fat in them, so there's a lot of work that goes into extracting these oils. Processed vegetable oils often require extensive methods, like chemical solvents, to remove these oils.
Like polyunsaturated fats, these vegetable oils are less stable and prone to oxidation--especially when stored in clear, plastic bottles where they’re exposed to light. Furthermore, vegetable oils often contain trans fats, which have been linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. (15) While hydrogenated oils are the worst for their high trans fat content, even non-hydrogenated oils can have a makeup of up to 4% trans fats. (16)
THE POWER OF OMEGAS
Another problem with vegetable oils is that they tend to be high in omega-6s. Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory fats, and while we do need this essential omega-6s in our diets to help with immune function and wound healing, too many can lead to chronic inflammation and inflammatory diseases. (17)
The ideal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is somewhere between 1:1 and 1:4, and yet the average American eats a ratio of 1:16 to 1:50. And again, with omega-6s, sourcing matters. Since these fats are more prone to oxidation, it’s important to choose cold-pressed oils, when using them. Good sources of omega-6s can also be found in grass-fed beef in the form of CLA.
While omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, omega-3s are anti-inflammatory fats, and it's important to make sure you’re eating enough of them. The benefits of omega-3 fats are extensive and include improving brain health and cognitive function (18), reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease (19), reducing inflammation (20)(which makes them great for keeping your joints healthy) and weight management(21).
HEALTHY FATS TO USE INSTEAD
It’s important to point out that the body needs a good amount of healthy fats to function: fats are responsible for hormone function, brain function and the uptake of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Monounsaturated fats, from foods like olives and avocados, can help to improve blood sugar while reducing cholesterol levels. And saturated fats, like coconut oil and grass-fed butter, can provide energy for the brain. For example, MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) found in coconut oil have been shown to be beneficial against neurodegenerative diseases. (22)
Some of the healthiest fats to start including in your diet are:
- Extra Virgin Olive oil
- Virgin Coconut oil
- Fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel and sardines)
- Grass-fed butter
- Nuts and seeds
When it comes to nutrition, nothing is really ever black or white: nuance is everything.
To improve your health, aim to eat whole, unprocessed ingredients with an emphasis on anti-inflammatory foods. Reduce your intake of foods known to cause inflammation, like sugar and processed vegetable oils, and be sure to address any underlying food intolerances, like gluten, that could be hindering your health.