You’d be healthier if you swapped out all your carbohydrates for simple sugars.
Sugar (from fruit & honey) has been the primary source of carbohydrates during human evolution.
At least that is what hunter-gatherers today preferentially eat over starches.
If they have access to fruit and/or honey year-round that is what they eat.
Humans evolved in the African rift zone where the Hadza people still live.
They eat sugar year-round and are as healthy as humans come.
Then why do we all seem to “know” that sugar is bad for us?
And, what is the difference between white sugar and sugar in fruit and honey?
Not much according to the experts.
So, how did we get to this point?
Well, the once rare chronic diseases started to rise during the early 1900s.
We all had an intuition that the increase had something to do with diet.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that nutrition science made its way into existence.
There were two main competing hypotheses between the two pioneers of nutrition science.
After WWII, John Yudkin in England proposed sugar was the main culprit.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ancel Keys hypothesised saturated fat was to blame.
In the end, Ancel Keys won and sugar was put on the sidelines.
In 1980, the US government issued its first Dietary guidelines.
In 1983, the UK followed suit and soon the rest of the West.
After 1980 we see a drastic shift in the graphs looking at chronic disease.
The guidelines told people (for the first time in history) to limit a specific food group, namely saturated fat.
We replaced red meat and animal fats with poultry and seed oils.
You’ve probably heard about how the sugar industry paid off scientists to put the blame on fat.
In the 2000s the vidication of saturated fats began.
Dietary cholesterol did not increase cholesterol in the blood.
A fact proven before the Second World War.
Despite this, in 2014, a survey found that 54% of American doctors still believed that dietary cholesterol increases blood cholesterol.
It’s not their fault, they get almost no training in nutrition and are not incentivised to study it on their own.
When blame is removed from one thing it usually needs to be moved to something else.
Yudkin’s ideas finally gained some traction, and it made sense.
When saturated fat became demonized something had to replace the calories coming from it.
And some of those calories came from sugar.
By now we understood that insulin played a role in fat gain and we also knew insulin resistance was driving many known diseases.
Insulin and carbohydrates went hand in hand.
Soon after sugar became the new target as the scapegoat for our deteriorating health.
The ketogenic diet made its resurgence.
A low-carb diet was the cure.
If we remove carbohydrates all our problems will fade away.
The main problems linked to diet are obesity and diabetes.
Both are known to be primary drivers of a host of chronic diseases.
Is sugar a main driver of obesity and diabetes?
The Human Sweet Tooth
Why Sugar Is So Dangerous is an article posted in Psychology Today.
It is quite interesting because it lays out the argument for why sugar is detrimental to us today but was vital for us in the past.
The story goes something like this.
All humans have a sweet tooth because sugar has a key role in cellular metabolism.
The attraction to sweet foods comes from our long, positive, history of eating fruits and honey.
Our ancestors developed a preference for sweetness because it increased the chances of survival and reproduction.
This is also the reason we have an inherent preference for red meat.
Of course, they also favoured other high-energy foods, particularly meat, that not only offered concentrated energy but also contained many nutrients essential for child growth and development.
However, fruit and honey were relatively scarce for our ancestors.
Today sugars are in abundance, and this causes a problem.
Sugars drive over-eating, and insulin resistance which both cause obesity and diabetes.
We’ll come back to this but first, we need to understand a little more about why sugars are so bad.
Why Sugar Is So Bad
When you google why sugar is bad mainstream health sites pop up.
They tell us that increased sugar consumption is linked (emphasis on linked) with a host of chronic diseases.
They then go on to say that sugar affects the body negatively in three primary ways:
It overloads the liver
It affects insulin so that we overeat
& it causes metabolic dysfunction
Simple sugars are different from complex carbohydrates.
In this case, we’ll simplify it to two categories,
All carbohydrates are broken down to their simplest sugar before entering the bloodstream.
Blood glucose is controlled by insulin whose job is to maintain a very narrow range of glucose in the blood.
Fructose is not controlled by insulin but instead gets (mainly) taken care of by the liver.
Let’s look at the glycemic index (a measure of insulin increase after eating carbs).
Glucose = 100
Cornflakes = 81
Instant oatmeal = 79
Potato (boiled) = 78
White bread = 75
Whole wheat bread = 74
White rice = 73
Brown rice = 68
Couscous = 65
Sucrose = 65
Soda = 59
Mango = 51
Banana = 51
Orange juice = 50
Oranges = 43
Dates = 42
Apples = 36
Pure white sugar has a lower glycemic index than pure starch, and fruits have much lower.
The increase in insulin is often blamed but looking at this the clever scientist had to come up with something else.
Because fructose does not increase insulin it does not allow insulin to have its supposed appetite-decreasing effects.
Fructose also has to be metabolised by the liver directly.
Sucrose should then create both a dysfunctional liver and a state of overeating.
Thus driving obesity, diabetes and metabolic dysfunction.
Sugar Scarcity In Ancestral Times
The main difference between starch and sucrose is the fructose component.
Fructose is metabolised in a different way.
Because of this, there has been a lot of theorises trying to prove that fructose causes metabolic dysfunction, obesity and diabetes.
If fructose does not fill that role, the demonization of sucrose over starches does not make a lot of sense.
One theory why fructose is bad is that it prepares us for periods of less food.
It does this by increasing appetite, lowering metabolism and increasing fat gain.
This would make sense if fruit and honey were available in abundance for short periods of time (& right before a period of scarcity).
As I said in the last post, we evolved on fruit and honey.
The Hadza is a hunter-gatherer population in the African rift zone, a place where the human lineage dates back at least 4 million years.
Literally, the place where humans evolved.
And it was only until 60,000 years ago when we moved out of Africa.
The Hadza have access to either fruit or honey (sugar) year-round and preferentially eat them over tubers (starches).
Despite this, the Hadza are as healthy as they come.
For something to signal that a low food availability period is coming, it needs to precede that period.
An abundance of nutrient-dense, energy-dense, and easy-to-digest foods, to me, seems like a signal for good times.
It is in good times we increase our metabolism so that we can do things such as procreate, fix internal issues, and move more.
And, sugar is known to increase metabolism while the lack of sugar (keto-diet) is known to decrease metabolism.
Fasting is a sign of food scarcity.
A ketogenic diet is also known as a fasting-mimicking diet because its metabolic state looks similar to that of starvation.
Foods that precede a period of scarcity should be foods that are available but not preferred.
Food that we’d only eat if the preferred options were not on the menu.
Fruit is not one of them, seeds, nuts and starches are.
Fructose may be one of the primary signals to the body that food is in abundance.
This may be why we metabolize it differently than glucose so that the body can differentiate survival food (starches) from thriving food (sugars).
Well, does insulin increase appetite or not?
A big part of the argument against sugar is that the lowered insulin drives appetite.
As you should know by now protein is the most important macronutrient for satiety.
I do not think the type of carbohydrate will have an impactful effect on appetite.
In any case, I want to create some doubt in this argument.
Insulin may or may not decrease appetite, the evidence is inconclusive.
Appetite regulation is a complex system.
A large part of appetite regulation comes from a cross-talk between the brain and the fat tissue.
This should make sense as fat tissue is the primary organ for fuel storage.
It is the organ that can tell the brain how much fuel is available at any given time.
Should we store fuel or should we burn it?
Insulin plays a role, but the inconclusive evidence suggests insulin has different effects on appetite depending on the state of the body.
In preparation for hibernation, mammals’ insulin levels continually rise alongside body weight until they reach their peak body mass.
Insulin is known to be a pro-fuel-storage hormone.
Again, fat cells need to respond to insulin to store fuel.
So, in a metabolic state that prioritizes fat gain, starches do not seem like a good idea.
Sugar, specifically the fructose component, might be the better alternative.
And as I have argued before, most people today are in a metabolic state that prioritizes fat gain.
The correlation tells a different story
The richer a country becomes, the worse their health and the more sugar they eat.
This makes it easy for us to assume sugar is a driver of negative health outcomes.
With this assumption in mind, looking at two similar countries, the country consuming the most sugar should be the fatter country.
Let’s take the neighbours Belgium and Luxemburg.
Belgium eats the most sugar in Europe and Luxembourg the least.
Belgium eats 48.3kg per person per year.
Luxembourg eats 10.8kg per person per year.
In Belgium, 50% of its population is either overweight or obese.
In Luxembourg, that number is 48%.
Almost five times the sugar consumption but only a 2% difference in overweight or obese population.
At 63.8% overweight or obese population the UK is one of Europe’s fattest countries.
Yet, sugar consumption in the UK is one of the lowest in Europe at 24.1 kg per person per year.
Correlation doesn’t prove anything.
However, it casts some doubt on the claim that sugar is the primary driver of weight gain.
Sugar can not explain this rise.
We need to figure out something else.
The biggest problem is ultra-processed foods.
If I were to show a graph correlating the consumption of ultra-processed foods and obesity you’d laugh at how bad the correlation to sugar is.
But for us who already cook most of our meals with whole foods, we are still facing health issues.
Cutting out sugar might not be a sufficient or even productive step to take.
1) Sugar was abundant during our evolution
Our evolutionary past probably looked similar to that of the Hadza.
They have access to sugar from fruit and honey year-round.
They also preferentially eat fruit and honey as their main carbohydrate source.
This suggests sugars are the preferred carbohydrates for humans.
2) Fructose may be a healthy part of carbs
Fructose does not affect insulin, often giving sugars a lower glycemic load than starches.
The hypothesis that too much insulin creates insulin resistance via the overconsumption of sugar thus makes little sense.
The Hadza are perfectly insulin-sensitive.
3) Something else is to blame (at least correlatively)
In similar cultures with similar socio-economics sugar consumption is not a good predictor of fatness.
Since the 1980s sugar consumption has not risen a lot and has during the 2000s even dropped.
At the same time, obesity is on a rocket ship to the moon.
We are trying hard to make our populations healthier but we are (obviously) doing a terrible job.
We blamed, saturated fat, fat, red meat, salt, and now sugar.
On the contrary, they probably did more damage than good.
Eating food that we evolved to digest and utilize, is not something that should drive disease.
Otherwise, hunter-gatherers should be unhealthy, and they are not.
They have almost none of the chronic diseases we have.
It is time to look at what we eat that they do not.
It is time to stop feeding ourselves and our children with things that make us depressed, overweight and unmotivated.
Take your responsibility and lead as an example of what humans could be.
And until next Sunday, do what makes your future selves proud.