THE SUGAR-BELLY CONNECTION
Found in the most innocent-looking food, sugar is enemy number one. Now it’s time to re-educate your taste buds
We all know that cutting sugar from our diet is good for our health and waistline, but how many of us know why? The answer lies in the difference between the fat on your belly and what’s stored on the rest of your body. The non-belly fat – the pinchable stuff on our thighs and backsides – is called subcutaneous fat. It’s actually pretty friendly in healthy doses, acting as a storage depot for energy. But belly fat is a different matter. It’s actually active, so much so that it’s now regarded as an organ in its own right. It churns out nasty substances that impair healthy body function – and it likes to add to itself. We refer to this lurking nasty as the “sugar belly”.
How does belly fat develop? It all begins with your body’s ability to balance two substances: glucose and insulin. Your muscles and brain rely on glucose for energy, while insulin is a hormone released by your pancreas to help move that glucose from your bloodstream into the muscle and brain cells that use it. The more glucose in your blood, the more insulin your body needs. And it’s in this simple chemical relationship that sugar-belly problems start.
During digestion, your body breaks down food into its individual components: amino acids (from protein), fatty acids (from fat) and glucose (from carbohydrates).
When your body takes in quickly digested carbohydrates, your bloodstream becomes quickly flooded with a large amount of glucose – resulting in the production of a corresponding quantity of insulin in order to transport it.
Which carbs are digested quickly? Sugar is one of the speediest. But so are refined carbohydrates like white flour, as well as many processed whole-grain products. For instance, white bread and the kind of wholewheat bread typically used for sandwiches are digested at about the same rate and cause about the same rise in blood-glucose levels, therefore requiring the same amount of insulin to clear the bloodstream of glucose.
Over time, repeated, extreme spikes in insulin have several detrimental effects on your body’s ability to correctly digest and store food. First, your cells become less responsive to it. This condition, known as insulin resistance, results in your pancreas producing even more insulin to compensate.
We’re designed to handle fructose in small amounts, not the 15kg of sugar a year that the average South African consumes
Glucose levels stay high and, in large amounts, glucose can damage blood vessels and nerves. On top of that – and here’s the link to your sugar belly – all that extra insulin floating around causes your body to store more fat than it normally would. It also prevents your body from using fat for energy between meals and once it enters, it’s not coming out. Think of it as a tattoo – easy to get on your body in moments of abandon, and damn hard to get off.
Think this is bad? You haven’t heard the worst of it. Because your body is held back from using your stored fat for fuel, you become more hungry, more often. Then you produce more insulin and you store more fat. The more fat you have, the more resistant your cells become to insulin. It’s a vicious circle!
And this brings us to sugar – the cherry on the whole miserable cake. Insulin resistance promotes fat storage everywhere on your body. It’s fructose, on the other hand, that contributes to belly fat specifically, according to studies. It’s found naturally in fruits and some vegetables that are packaged with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre. Not that fruit salad is the problem.
The real issue is that the amount of fructose we’re consuming in added sugars, such as table sugar (cane or white sugar), is swelling our tummies and menacing our health. Our bodies were designed to handle fructose in small amounts (ie: in a few servings of fruit or a little honey a day), not the 15kg of sugar a year the average South African consumes. And in this form, you aren’t getting any of the good stuff – like fibre or vitamins – along with it.
Don’t assume heart disease and diabetes are years away; too much fructose takes a toll on even young hearts, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition. It found that teens who consumed the most fructose had higher blood pressure and bloodsugar levels than those who ate the least and it linked high-fructose diets to increases in visceral fat.
FROM SUGAR BELLY TO FATTY LIVER
Located on the right side of your abdomen, tucked behind your lower ribs, lies your liver – the body’s alchemist. One of its most critical jobs is to turn toxins – both formed naturally in the body and man-made, such as medication and alcohol – into harmless substances. This hardworking organ uses about 20 percent of the kilojoules you take in to fuel itself and its work, which includes converting proteins and sugars from food into energy for your body.
Recent research suggests that kilojoules from different types of food are metabolised differently in the body. Every single one of your body’s 10-trillion cells can metabolise glucose. But only the liver can metabolise fructose all by itself. Sucrose, or table sugar, is half fructose, which puts quite a burden on the liver; the glucose it contains is processed by the rest of the body.
Worse still, these sugars are found in foods that – at face value – come across as “healthy”. Let’s say your standard breakfast is a coffee-shop 1 045kJ strawberrybanana smoothie. That wholesome-sounding mix might have all the vitamins and minerals of the fruits involved, but also packs in 41g of sugar, almost all of it added, and the yoghurt base contains straight-up fructose. The added sugars are coming from the strawberry-banana fruit base, which implies whole fruit, but is not. The ingredient list reveals “purée” of both strawberry and banana, along with regular sugar (sucrose).
Your liver works harder to break down that fructose than if you ate a 1 045kJ bowl of, say, oats topped with half a sliced banana and some strawberries. This is because these foods contain much less sugar and the fibre in the oats slows down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Since the smoothie’s sugars come in liquid form, they hit your liver fast. Imagine wading into the sea, when out of nowhere a huge wave smashes into you, knocking you off your feet. That’s how a large influx of fructose hits your liver.
Keep cramming in enough fructose for long enough and globules of fat will begin to form in the cells of your liver. Before 1980, doctors rarely saw this fatty build-up, known as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Now, it affects one in five of all adults worlwide, according to a study in the journal Deutsches Ärzteblatt International.
It’s worth noting that the rise in NAFLD has happened at exactly the same time as the increase in obesity, and that the condition affects between 70 to 90 percent of people whose weight is graded at that level. In fact, experts consider NAFLD a hallmark of a condition characterised by the cluster of obesityrelated conditions known as metabolic syndrome.
This fat build-up in the liver isn’t obvious on your body, either. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that people who ate 4 180 extra kilojoules of sugary foods for three weeks saw just a two percent increase in body weight, but a 27 percent increase in liver fat.
When you lose weight, liver fat returns to normal levels. But if NAFLD isn’t caught in time, the liver can become inflamed, which can lead to a more severe liver condition known as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. If the inflammation becomes severe, scar tissue replaces healthy tissue, impairing the liver’s ability to perform its crucial functions. When that happens, it’s called cirrhosis. (Cirrhosis only happens with really severe alcoholism, right? Now, it appears, an excessively sugary diet could play a role, too.) A fat-riddled liver may become resistant to the action of insulin. As the pancreas churns out more and more of this fat-storage hormone to prod the liver into doing its job, insulin levels increase – and so does body fat.
FRUCTOSE: THE QUICKER FATTERUPPER
As you’ll recall, one of the liver’s jobs is to convert the sugars in food into fuel for the body. It’s also tasked with turning excess energy into body fat. This process is called lipogenesis and, at least theoretically, research suggests the body may turn fructose into body fat more efficiently compared to sucrose and glucose.
An early study that looked for a link between fructose consumption and body fat was conducted on mice. German researchers allowed them to freely drink plain water or fructose-sweetened water – the rodent version of soft drinks – for 10 weeks. Though the fructose-sipping mice regularly ate fewer kilojoules from solid food, they gained weight and ended up with 27 percent more body fat than the mice that drank plain water. Because fructose doesn’t need insulin to enter the cells, it floods the body and is quickly stored as fat.
Another study, this one on people, addressed the question of whether fructose really does cause the body to pack on fat. US researchers fed “breakfast” to six volunteers – four men and two women. The breakfast was actually lemonade that contained three different combinations of sugar – 100 percent glucose, an equal mix of glucose and fructose, and 25 percent glucose and 75 percent fructose.
Immediately afterward, the team measured the conversion of the sugars to fat in the liver. Four hours later, the volunteers ate lunch – turkey sandwiches, salty snacks and biscuits. Each volunteer’s lunch contained different amounts of sugars based on body weight. Then the researchers measured how the food
Cirrhosis only happens with really severe alcoholism, right? Now, it appears, an excessively sugary diet could play a role too
was metabolised. The results: lipogenesis rose 17 percent when the volunteers had the fructosecontaining drinks, compared to eight percent for the glucose drink. Simply put, their bodies made fat more efficiently. Further, after metabolising fructose in the morning, the liver increased the storage of fats eaten at lunch. As the study’s lead researcher, Dr Elizabeth Parks, put it: “The carbohydrates came into the body as sugars. The liver took the molecules apart and put them back together to build fats. All this happened within four hours of the fructose drink. As a result, when the next meal was eaten, lunch fat was more likely to be stored than burnt.” Although this research is preliminary, it raises questions about starting your day with a fructose-filled sugary drink.
Most likely, these results underestimated the effect of fructose because the test subjects were healthy and lean, and could process the fructose quickly. So the fat-packing potential of fructose may be worse if you’re overweight, because this process is already revved up.
YOUR BRAIN ON ICE-CREAM
There’s evidence that a steady diet of sugary, processed foods can mess with insulin in our brains, triggering what some experts are calling type-3 diabetes, better known as Alzheimer’s disease. Scary stuff.
US researchers uncovered the link between insulin resistance and a high-fat diet in brain cells. In a paper published in Current Alzheimer Research, they reviewed evidence suggesting that Alzheimer’s is a metabolic disease in which the brain’s ability to use glucose and produce energy is impaired. The evidence, they concluded, suggests that Alzheimer’s has “virtually all of the features of diabetes, but is largely confined to the brain”. In one study, they interfered with the way rats’ brains naturally respond to insulin. The rats went on to develop all the brain damage seen in Alzheimer’s, and
were unable to learn their way through the kind of maze they normally had no problem navigating.
People with type-2 diabetes have been found to be significantly more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s. While the disease doesn’t necessarily cause Alzheimer’s, both diseases may share the same root: insulin resistance.
YOUR STONE-AGE SWEET TOOTH
So, why do our brains want more sugar than our bodies can handle? It sometimes seems as though Mother Nature has left us with a ticking time-bomb compulsion to self-destruct in the tastiest way possible, when you consider how easy it is to lay your hands on the stuff. The answer lies back in the beginnings of our species – unsurprisingly in an era before corner cafés.
It’s thought that our ancestors associated a sweet taste with energy-dense, immune-system-protecting fruit. With survival of the entire human race hingeing on getting enough to eat, every kilojoule literally represented a matter of life and death, and a sweet taste triggered a reassuring “this is safe to eat” message in ancient brains.
For a while, kilojoule-dense fruit and honey were virtually all we knew of sweet tastes. In the Paleolithic era (a period of half a million years that ended 10 000 years ago), fruits and vegetables made up well over half of our diet. But everything changed with the dawn of farming. As humans began to rely on cereal grains, our consumption of fruit and vegetables dropped.
Our bodies were designed to crave a sugar that is supposedly hard to come by, store it quickly, and use it fast
And sugar – derived from sugar cane, which was grown in tiny quantities at first – began its relentless seduction of our taste buds. Our bodies were designed to crave a sugar that is supposedly hard to come by, store it quickly, and use it fast.
Our sugar-belly problem comes from when we’re living in high-tech times – where one can access countless spoonfuls of the stuff in a single lunchtime – but still have brains that are hard-wired to seek sugar. We simply end up storing more than we use. We’re not climbing trees to pluck precious, high-hanging fruit; we’re calling up for free delivery.
This is where the Shrink Your Sugar Belly eating plan comes in, cleverly exploiting your body’s natural attraction to sugar while still allowing its healthy nutritional needs to be fulfilled. As you’ll find, something as simple as the daily consumption of a protein-packed breakfast helps rein in your appetite during the day and reduces your urge to snack.
THE EMOTIONAL CONNECTION
We love sweet. Our taste buds, our eyes, our emotions – they all crave the reward of sugar. We love the taste, the way it makes us feel and the connection that sweetness provides. Horrendous day? Ice cream. Crushing worries about your love life? Ice cream. Feeling fat and friendless? You get the idea. Eating in response to emotions like boredom, loneliness or anxiety – what’s called emotional eating – is real.
In fact, in a study of 40 women of varying sizes, those who scored higher on a scientifically designed food-addiction scale showed more activity in the parts of the brain associated with addiction when they were shown a tempting image of a milkshake. One sign of using sugar to manage emotions is that responding to a sugar craving doesn’t alleviate it. Trying to satisfy the craving only prompts a desire for more… and more.
Habit ties us into an emotional attraction, too. If you’re used to having a muffin for breakfast, biscuits in the afternoon or dessert after dinner, something starts to feel wrong if you skip it.
WHERE’S YOUR SUGAR LURKING?
We all know to steer clear of fizzy drinks because of their obvious sugar content. But you wouldn’t have that same trepidation over a chicken sandwich on wholewheat bread – despite the fact that the bread alone can have up to two teaspoons of added sugar per slice. (If you want to continue shrinking your sugar belly after the eating plan, you should be consuming no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar a day – but try stick to six.) It’s one thing to knowingly consume a sugar bomb. It’s another to learn that many foods you consider healthy can be sugar bombs, too. Ultimately, there are two types of sugars in food: the kind you know about and the kind you don’t.
Something as simple as breakfast, and packing it with protein, reins in your appetite
STRAIGHT-UP SUGAR Found in sweets, drinks, breakfast cereals, energy bars and desserts, this type of sugar is loud and proud. While it’s often listed as “sugar”, it might also be called by different names. Even if you’re aware that these foods pack sugar, you may not realise just how much. For instance, doesn’t a chilled fruit drink sound better than Coke? A 500ml bottle of Coke has just over 13 teaspoons of sugar. The same amount
of orange juice has just over nine – better, but not by much. If you’re following the sugar-belly-shrinking limits, that’s your whole day’s allowance in one bottle!
SECRET SUGAR Wander around your supermarket. Pick up bottles, jars and boxes at random and look at the ingredient lists. There will be a list of values titled “of which sugars”. But more often than not, you’re likely to find sugar listed as an ingredient, even if you don’t recognise its alias. True to their name, Secret Sugars lurk in foods you don’t even think of as sweet. These include pasta sauce, packet noodles, salad dressings, tomato sauce, barbecue sauce and some deli meats and sausages. There are also sweeteners that you may not realise are sugar. It’s frustrating, but once you’re familiar with the many words for sugar in an ingredient list, you’ll be better prepared to control your sugar choices.
SUGAR MIMICS This is sugar in its sneakiest form: foods that don’t taste like sugar but mimic its action in the body. Foods like chips, bagels, potatoes, white rice and pasta may not contain sugar per se, but they might as well – they’re digested as rapidly as sugar. And they have the same effect on the body: glucose floods the bloodstream, triggering a rise in the fat-storage hormone insulin and disruptions in other hormones that keep your appetite under control. So, as you’ll be finding out, Sugar Mimics have the same harmful effects as Straight-Up and Secret Sugars.
You may know that a steady diet of refined carbohydrates, stripped of their fibre and nutrients, is associated with obesity and disease. Not your problem? You start the day with wholewheat toast or bran cereal. You snack on whole-grain crackers and hummus. Occasionally, you splurge on a wholegrain bagel. Whole-grain is healthy, right? Not quite. If your whole-grain intake consists of foods made with whole-grain flour, like some cereals and crackers, you can also grow a sugar belly.
In the process of making wholewheat or wholegrain flour, kernels are pulverised practically to dust, so they’re digested by your body about as quickly as white flour or table sugar. This means they can spike your blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to hunger and prompting you to reach for more of these foods. You’re caught in an unending cycle of cravings and consumption.
But that cycle can be broken, and this book can help you do it. Everything you’ve read in these last few pages is pretty depressing, but the good news is that the solution lies in the delicious, filling recipes and smart tips to be found in the rest of this book. Isn’t it time to get off the sugar merry-go-round and quench those formidable cravings once and for all? In the next chapter you’ll learn how to hit “Factory Reset” on your taste buds over just 20 days. But before that, let’s find out exactly what’s to come…