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Stop obsessing over calories and watch out for those ‘hidden sugars’

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight chances are that you’ve come across the popular diet trend of ‘calorie counting’. While the concept of calories in versus calories out is valid, focussing only on calories ignores the complexity of foods and how they are.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that calories don’t matter, it’s the quality of the calories that are important. Especially since calories are not created equally. For example an entire bowl of strawberries would be comparable to a handful of sugar coated candy if we were only looking at the calories!

The human body regulates energy balance in a highly complex manner and hence the way it absorbs calories is dependant on various factors. This is where fibre and the sugar content of foods come into play. High fibre foods take a longer time to digest and therefore cause your blood glucose to elevate slowly. Refined & processed foods on the other hand are easily digested and cause huge spikes in your blood sugar. The spike in both blood sugar results in increased energy, however this rise in energy is brief and followed by a dramatic drop in blood sugar (referred to as a crash). The constant fluctuation in blood glucose leads to a ‘energy-draining cycle’ that can result in feeling tired all the time.

Chronic elevations in blood glucose affect your insulin response which triggers your liver to store more energy in the form of fat. Some of this fat is stored around your vital organs leading to a build up of visceral fat (commonly called belly fat). Another consequence of elevated insulin levels is an inhibition of fat breakdown in adipose tissue. Insulin has what you call a ‘fat-sparing effect’ on the body, where it drives more cells to oxidise carbohydrates instead of fat. Which means that the more sugar we consume the less fat we burn.

Now this is where it gets tricky, because there is an abundance of sugar (both natural & artificial) in the foods we eat. So even if we’re not intentionally eating sugar we need to start looking out for these hidden sugars.

The top offenders include biscuits, muesli, fruit juices, jams & spreads, chocolate drinks, cereals, granola, carbonated beverages and flavoured yogurts. Be particularly weary of fat-free foods as they often have added sugar to replace the fat. Some savoury products like ketchup, instant soup, pasta sauce, instant noodles are also loaded with sugar.

It’s important to mention that added sugar finds it’s way in various forms such as honey, jaggery, molasses, date syrup, inverted sugar syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave etc. The bottom line is that even if a product contains a less refined form of sugar it still adds up and effects your blood glucose & insulin.


Food manufacturers are not currently required to separate added sugar from naturally occurring sugars on the nutrition label, however if you look at the carbohydrate breakdown you can see the total sugar content of the product.

The image on the left shows you the sugar in each beverage beginning with a milkshake on the left, followed by cola, an energy drink, flavoured water and fruit juice. As you can see the sugar content of these products can be incredibly deceptive. As a rule of thumb, products with more than 15gm of sugar per 100gm is considered a high sugar food, whereas if it has 5gm or less of sugar per 100gm it is considered to have a low sugar content.

The first step would be to cut back on the obviously sugary products, and the next would be to keep an eye on refined carbohydrates as they are a big source of simple sugars that have a similar effect on blood glucose. Refined carbs like refined flour (maida) and white rice are nutritionally imbalanced, because they have been stripped of all fibre, bran and a large percentage of nutrients. Unfortunately refined flour seems to be the grain of choice, the key is to identify them on nutrition labels and avoid them accordingly.

Completely cutting sugar from our diets can be difficult, but what we can do is to reduce intake and opt for natural alternatives like the kind found in fruit. Choose good quality foods that are minimally processed, contain whole-grains and no added sugar!!

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