Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fresh reviews - Sweet Poison: Why sugar makes us fat

Sweet Poison: Why Sugar is Making Us Fat

Liz from Eight Acres first told me about Sweet Poison months ago, so I got very excited when I spotted it at the library last Thursday.

Upon opening it up to read that night, I found myself swallowing down waves of anxiety. I was expecting the author to berate me for my sugar addiction, so was pleasantly surprised to read instead the story of one man's research into obesity. Specifically, his own.

Reading that the author, David Gillespie, started his research for this book while 40kg overweight, immediately put me at ease. This wasn't another book written by a skinny person, telling fat people how to lose weight. In fact, it's not really a "diet book" at all, but rather a fascinating insight into the history of sugar and its effects on the human body.

Gillespie has done a wonderful job of explaining what happens to food inside our bodies. His writing reminds me of Michael Pollan's, in that he's tackled a complex subject and turned it into a darned good read.

Fructose turns to fat
He explains in Sweet Poison that sucrose (or table sugar) is half glucose and half fructose, and it is the fructose half that's causing a plague on human health. Because sugar was once so rare, our bodies are designed to make the most of it when we get it. Fructose is able to bypass all the regular controls in our body - like the ones that tell us we're full.

Unlike other types of sugar, like glucose and lactose, fructose is siphoned up by the liver and immediately converted into fatty acids to be stored for later.

David Gillespie explains that because the fructose half of sugar is immediately converted to fat, you can expect to put on weight at the rate at which you consume fructose. For example, if I were to eat chocolate containing 30g of sugar every day, 15g of that would be fructose and 15g of it would be glucose. The fructose half would immediately get converted to fat in my body, and I would gain 15g of weight upon eating it.

Drinking fruit juice is actually a really good way to gain weight fast. It has loads of fructose, but has been stripped of all the fibre that would usually tell your body you've had enough. You can drink much more fruit juice than you can eat fruit, and all that fructose gets converted straight to fat.

Because our bodies don't register fructose in the way they do other sugars and fats, we become hungry a lot sooner after consuming it. So then we eat more. The more sugar we eat, the more we want, and the cycle of weight gain continues.

Someone told me recently that sugar is more addictive than heroin. And I'm not surprised.

Whether we realise it or not, we're all eating sugar. Even people who don't typically have "sweet tooths" are eating it in savoury foods like bread, soup and sauce.

What about exercise?
Until reading Sweet Poison, I was under the common assumption that exercise might help me beat the bulge. However, as David Gillespie points out, our bodies are just too efficient at converting food to fat and energy for exercise to be an effective means of weight loss.

We only need a little bit of fructose to fuel a lot of exercise, so it's much easier to lose weight by eating less fructose, than it is to eat fructose and then try to burn it off with lots of exercise.

My own experience confirms this. Prior to getting pregnant with Lily, I exercised for around an hour most week days. I regularly played sports like Soccer, Touch Rugby and Volleyball, plus I went for long walks and did an hour of Yoga each week. None of this exercise made a dent in my weight, but I didn't understand why. All of that exercise was not enough to get me down to a healthy weight range.

Gillespie calculates we would all need to run 7km every day to avoid putting on weight as a result of eating the amount of sugar we do.

Finally, I've found the answer to why I've been gaining weight my whole life.

The problems with eating sugar go beyond weight gain. It is also ridiculously bad for our health. In fact, it is the biggest killer of people eating a western diet.

Here's a quote from Sweet Poison that nicely summarises the not-so-nice effects of fructose on our system:

"Fructose increases circulating fatty acids, particularly LDL cholesterol. Increased fatty-acids lead directly to heart disease and stroke. 

"Increased fatty-acid levels also reduce the effectiveness of insulin in clearing the blood of glucose. Increase blood glucose leads to type II diabetes and feeds cancer."

It's not ALL bad news.

"Oestrogen reduces (to a degree) the effects of fatty acids and allows insulin to work well despite their presence and to eliminate them from the bloodstream. This results in pre-menopausal women having lower incidences of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Fibre has a similar effect to that of oestrogen (so there is hope for men after all) in rendering insulin more effective and therefore lowering the risk of all of those diseases. 

"If you must eat fructose, then either have plenty of oestrogen on hand or eat a lot of fibre (hang on - fructose plus fibre ... that sounds like whole fruit)."

For women, the fact we put on weight is actually a good thing healthwise. It's better for that fat to settle on our hips than in our arteries. It's the thin men eating a high sugar diet we need to worry about, as, unless they're eating a high fibre diet or exercising excessively, the fructose is turning to fat and settling in their arteries.

To be truly healthy we are best to only eat sugar as it comes packaged by nature - in whole fruit. Then our natural appetite control will kick in and regulate the amount of fructose we consume.

I knew refined sugar was bad for me, especially after reading Nourishing Traditions, but I hadn't managed to kick the sugar habit yet. Rather, I'd been looking for healthier sugar alternatives like honey, rapadura, jaggery and sucanut.

Sweet Poison has convinced me that to beat the cravings, I need to go cold turkey on sugar, except where it is found in whole fruit. I managed to get through an entire birthday party yesterday without eating any of the baking. Instead I indulged in strawberries and cheese and crackers, and they were delicious.

By cutting fructose out of his diet, David Gillespie managed to drop 40kg / 88lb in two years. He now has the energy to exercise and enjoy life to the full.

How am I going to give up sugar?
Now, I make no promises here. I am the biggest chocoholic I know, so giving up sugar is going to be VERY difficult for me to do. But I'm having a good crack at it.

To make this easier on myself, I've scoured the Internet for sugar-free, fruit-based sweet recipes. Here's what I've found:

Deceptively delicious chocolate pudding, by The Coconut Mama
Mango chia pudding, by Nourishing Treasures
Peachy cream ice cream, by Nourishing Treasures
Banana berry smoothie, by Craving Fresh (Wait. That's me!)
Three minute icecream, by Cooking Traditional Foods
Banana pancakes, from Against the Grain, by Modern Alternative Mama (Lily and I ate these for breakfast this morning and they were delicious.)

If you've got any other sugar free recipes you think I'd like to try, please send them my way.

Linked to Sunday School: Real Food Link Love


  1. Yay Emma, its a great book right, except that it makes you feel guilty about eating chocolate, and that is also my biggest problem. I can happily avoid all other sugar, but giving up chocolate has been beyond my will-power so far. If you do go cold-turkey you can try baking with glucose/dextrose (found in the home-brew area of your supermarket). The second Sweet Poison book has numerous recipes. I haven't tried any as I am happy without baking, just want chocolate, and as I haven't stopped eating chocolate, I can't try the glucose (as David warns that would be even worse for my body). Anyway, thanks for the summary, maybe it will be enough of a reminder to make me try to drop the chocolate for good, the health effects apart from weight gain are pretty scary...

  2. Awesome. Now I need to stop eating my kids nutella by the spoonfull. Its got nuts in it. Thats good for me right :-)

  3. So interesting. I knew fructose was the "bad" sugar but didn't know why. Thanks Emma. Might see if they have that book in our library.


  4. Does he mention Xylitol? Apparently you can use it just like sugar. It is a sugar alcohol. I don't know a lot about it except it is supposed to be good for your teeth! Louise

  5. I try to limit my sugar, but I've found that processed foods are worse for me. I make my won icecream which I find I can eat a small amount and be satisfied. But the way I have cut down my sugar intake is to change my sugar. I now buy molasses sugar which is unrefined. As it has flavour rather than just sweet I have actually cut my sugar intake down drastically.

  6. I am eager to read this book. I have hypoglycemia and an extreme sensitivity to sugar (I get shaky, my heart races and I become somewhat disorientation, etc.). As a result, I try to steer clear of them, but I also get huge dips in blood sugar and sometimes turn to the sweet stuff when I feel myself "crashing" which is equally unhelpful. I would love a follow up post with more sugar-free recipes! Here's one I enjoy:

  7. A cardiac dietician/nutritionist informed our rehab group that the healthy alternative to sugar,molasses etc in pretty much everything e.g. jam,baking etc is Splenda...that is,sucralose

    1. That's interesting. Did they say why?



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