Foods That Act like Sugar

An excerpt from Sugarettes by Dr. Scott Olson

At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “Okay, it might be hard to stop eating sugar, but I think I can do it.” Before you decide to take that step, I have to explain something that I have mentioned throughout the book that will make taking all the sugars out of your diet even harder!

This is probably not what you wanted to hear, but by reading this next section, you will gain some valuable tools that will enable you to understand just how to minimize the impact of sugars and foods that act like sugars on your body.

There it is again. Did you see it?

Throughout this book I have been using that phrase sugars and foods that act like sugars. Let me tell you exactly what I mean by foods that act like sugars. Remember that quote from the sugar industry earlier in the book? It went like this:

The available evidence from clinical studies demonstrates that dietary sucrose does not increase glycemia more than isocaloric amounts of starch. Thus, intake of sucrose and sucrose containing foods by people with diabetes does not need to be restricted because of concern about aggravating hyperglycemia.

While I hate to admit that the sugar industry is correct, they are. Well, at least the first part of their statement is accurate. The second sentence in the above paragraph is completely wrong, But instead of being the result of not thinking the next thought, it is the result of thinking the wrong next thought. The right next thought ought to be that you might need to restrict sucrose and isocaloric starches because they both increase blood sugar.

The sugar industry calls them “isocaloric starches,” and I call them foods that act like sugar in your body, but they are the same thing. There are two questions that ought to pop into your head when you read the sugar industry statement. The first is: just what are isocaloric starches? And the second is: are these isocaloric starches natural for human consumption?

When you eat sugar, up goes your blood sugar…you know this much already. But what happens when you eat these so-called isocaloric starches? So when the sugar industry compares eating isocaloric starches to eating sugar, it is a bit like saying the results of drinking beer and drinking wine are not that different because they both increase blood alcohol the same way. But the question they ought to be asking is not whether isocaloric starches raise your blood sugar in the same way that table sugar does, but rather, should you be eating isocaloric starches in the first place. Or at all?


Isocaloric Starches

The word iso means the same and caloric means the amount of calories. You learned about starches (carbohydrates) earlier. So what the sugar industry is saying when they use the term isocaloric starches is that when you compare they way sugar behaves to the behavior of the same amount of calories in a starch (carbohydrate), they will both increase blood sugar the same amount. This means that certain starches act exactly like sugar in your body. Can this really be true?

Studies have been done on these starches, and, yes, they have the same effect on your blood sugar as sugar does. In fact, in the whacky world of the glycemic index, there are some isocaloric starches like white bread, or even rice cakes, that increase your blood sugar even more than eating straight table sugar!

Think about what this means…certain starches act more like sugar than sugar does.

Now that you have seen the destruction that sugar can cause, do you really think (like the sugar industry suggests) that you do not need to restrict sugar because there are starches that act the same as sugar? No, what you need to ask yourself is this: should you be eating any foods that can raise your blood sugar as much as these foods do? After all, 10,000 years ago, there weren’t any foods around that could cause such a rise in blood sugar.

There are two approaches to dealing with foods that can increase your blood sugar. The first is to simply avoid them, and the second is to learn how to keep your blood sugar low even if you are eating them. How do you do this? For answers, we turn to the glycemic index.


Enter the Glycemic Index

For years scientists and doctors made assumptions about which carbohydrates would increase blood sugar based on how much sugar was inside the food. This, it turns out, is not a very accurate way to measure what is going on inside the body. These assumptions went unchallenged until it occurred to a researcher to actually test how foods act inside the body, and monitor what they do to blood sugar levels.

Out of this research came the glycemic index.

The glycemic index is a measure of how much a certain food increases blood sugar. It works like this: first a scientist measures a volunteer’s blood sugar; then they feed the volunteer a single food; and, finally, after a certain amount of time (usually half an hour or an hour later), they measure the volunteer’s blood sugar level. Through exhaustive research of this kind, scientists have been able to determine how different foods affect our blood sugar levels.

What we have discovered using the glycemic index has been amazing. Here are some typical glycemic index values for common carbohydrates:

Glucose 100
Instant Mashed Potatoes 97
White Rice 98
Baguette 95
Baked Potato 94
Corn Flakes 80
Sucrose 70

The numbers aren’t really all that important, except for this: Anything that measures over 70 is considered high on the glycemic index; low glycemic foods measure below 55. What you have to remember, though, is what the glycemic index is measuring. The glycemic index is measuring blood glucose levels, not other sugars such as fructose. You can see this when they measure table sugar (sucrose). Sucrose only measures a 70 on the glycemic index because it is fifty percent glucose and fifty percent fructose.

As you can see from the chart, a lot of foods affect the body similarly to the way eating glucose, or even table sugar (sucrose), does. Armed with this information, you can now understand what the sugar industry means when it says that isocaloric starches act similarly to the way sugar does in the body. Isocaloric starches like potato, corn flakes, rice, and others look just like sugar to your body. In fact, when you eat these foods, your blood sugar level is going to rise just as it would if you had eaten several spoonfuls of white sugar.


You Are What You Eat

Now let’s briefly take on the more important question: Should you even be eating isocaloric starches? As you now know, sugars and grains are a relatively new addition to the human diet, and while we have seen a steady increase in the amount of grains and sugars in our diets over the last few thousands years, the real jump in the number of sugars and foods that act like sugars in our diets has only taken place during the last one or two hundred years.

A pioneering dentist by the name of Weston Price traveled the globe in the 1930s studying people who were making the transition from traditional diets to more Western diets. He discovered relatives, such as brothers, where one had implemented a Western diet and the other had continued with a traditional diet. When he compared the two, he was astounded.

The people who were eating the Western diets had experienced changes to their bodies that were noticeable. As a dentist, he focused much of his study on teeth and noticed that Western diets produced people whose mouths were much narrower, more crowded and, of course, more cavity-ridden than those who ate traditional diets.

If grains are such optimal foods for us to eat, if they make up the bulk of what we are supposed to put into our mouths according to government agencies, scientists, doctors and the food pyramid, then it is logical that we should see people become healthier when they choose a grain-based diet. This is simply not the case. Think back to your garden. If you provide plants with the right nutrients, then they grow bigger and are less prone to disease. Human beings are no different.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether or not grains and sugars are right for you and your health. As I mentioned before, you have a choice between completely eliminating them from your diet, or learning how to keep your blood sugar level low even when you are eating them. To understand how to make the second option work, we need to take a closer look at the glycemic index.


Glycemic Index Chart

Let’s take a look at a selection of typical foods and see how they rate on the glycemic index:

There are a few things you want to notice about this chart. Most sugars and grains appear at the top of the chart, and are considered high glycemic foods. The grains that show up at the bottom of the chart are those containing a lot of fiber such as barley; these are eaten in whole-form (the way most people eat rice).

The grain foods that are on the bottom are mostly pastas; these, for many reasons, tend to be a bit harder for your digestive system to break down, so the sugars are released more slowly into the blood stream. This is a good thing.

Also take a look and notice that there are high, low, and medium glycemic fruits, and that beans and nuts are generally low on the glycemic index.

Note also that there are numerous foods that are missing from this chart. Scientists measure only foods that they think will make an impact on the glycemic index, so you won’t find foods that don’t change your blood sugar on this chart. These foods are what I would call below the glycemic index foods, and they are foods that you can eat without worrying about how they will affect your blood sugar at all.

It is not difficult to guess what these foods are; they are the same foods you found in the fields 10,000 years ago. These foods include many vegetables such as broccoli, onions, cabbage, garlic, Brussels sprouts, and greens of all kinds. They also include all of the proteins that come from animals including meats, whey, and eggs. Eating below the glycemic index is one of the healthiest ways that you can eat.

I should stop right here and tell you that I am not advocating a high protein diet such as the Atkins diet, or suggesting that grains and sugars be avoided entirely. But I will have a lot more to say about just how to structure a diet plan that will work for you later in the book.


What Is Wrong with the Glycemic Index?

You should also know that the glycemic index is not perfect. The way I presented it above makes it appear as though the glycemic index value for a certain foods is clear and straight forward. This is not entirely the case. If you look online or in other places you will find that the glycemic index for some foods varies. In some charts you might find oranges as a high glycemic index food, while in another you might find it listed as a low glycemic index food.

The reasons for this are many, and are the result of different scientific teams testing the same food. The two most likely reasons scientists don’t get consistent results are that foods vary, as do our responses to them.

Anyone who has ever farmed or been a gardener will know that the soil is highly variable, and even identical plants planted a few feet apart can grow differently and produce different quality of food. An orange picked early in the season, for example, might have less sugar content than one picked later. An orange grown in Florida that was tested for the glycemic index might be completely different from one grown in Spain.

And everyone reacts differently to the same food. If you and I were to eat oranges, my blood sugar may rise higher than yours, but when we ate carrots, yours might become higher than mine.

The glycemic index is a very poor predictor for what happens when someone eats more than one food at the same time. Remember that when they test for glycemic index, they use only one food at a time. So what happens when you eat a meal of mixed foods? You would think that if you took a high glycemic index food and mixed it with a low glycemic food and then ate those foods that your blood sugar would be somewhere in the middle. This is often not the case.

While the glycemic index is not perfect, this doesn’t mean it should be dismissed entirely. Scientists are working on perfecting the glycemic index by adding a calculation to the formula that takes into account the amount of food being eaten. This new measurement is called glycemic load. What you need to do with the glycemic index is think of it more as a guideline than a rule-book on foods that will spike your blood sugar level.

If you hope to live a long and healthy life, you ought to try to eat as many foods as possible that are below or off the glycemic index. Later in the book, using the glycemic index as a guide, I will steer you in the right direction. Now is a good time to stop and take a look at the other kinds of sweeteners that have made their way into our diets.