A Sweet Exposé


Find out the truth behind sugar’s tumultuous relationship with diabetes

There has been a lot of talk about how taking too much sugar can cause diabetes but this has since been disproven. However, many are still not aware that sugar isn’t the only culprit behind diabetes so they focus solely on the intake and effects of sugar. The truth is, when it comes to diabetes, it’s a hormone called insulin that we should be looking into.

There’s also the notion that a person with diabetes cannot eat their favourite (sweet) things anymore and will have to resign themselves to a life of boring and bland food. This is yet another misconception about diabetes. To set the record straight, Urban Health speaks to Sunway Medical Centre’s Manager of Dietetics and Nutrition Services, Celeste Lau Wai Hong.

Celeste Lau Wai Hong, Manager of Dietetics and Nutrition Services

Celeste Lau Wai Hong, Manager of Dietetics and Nutrition Services

The verdict on sugar and diabetes

Lau says, “It is a myth that eating too much sugar will cause diabetes. Sweet things could be incorporated into a healthy meal plan that’s balanced with regular exercise. Research shows that the total amount of carbohydrates eaten, affects blood glucose levels far more than the type of carbohydrate,” She explains that sweets contain a large amount of carbohydrates in a small serving, so it is more advisable to have only a small serving of sweets.

Currently, studies are still being conducted to identify the exact relationship between sugar and diabetes. Lau adds that there is, however, a direct link between sugar and the rise of obesity, which indirectly predisposes a person to diabetes. “The best way to deal with sugar as a factor in obesity is to substitute sugar for food that has approximately the same number of total carbohydrates, “ says Lau. “Complex carbohydrates such as bread, rice and noodles can be a good substitute and will lead to better management of blood sugar compared to simple sugars found in processed sugar and syrup.”

Words of Wisdom

There are no ‘best and worst’ foods for people who have diabetes. In general, people with diabetes should adopt a healthy diet by consuming a variety of food from the four key food groups – vegetables and fruits, grain products, milk and meat alternatives and fats.

The emphasis should be on a diet that is low in energy density and high in volume to optimise satiety and discourage overconsumption, advises Lau.  “This kind of diet will help a person attain and maintain a healthy body weight while ensuring an adequate intake of carbohydrate, fibre, fats and essential fatty acids, protein, vitamins and minerals.”

Another aspect of a diabetic’s diet is to look at portion control. It is advisable to practice portion control for all foods while choosing nutrient dense and high fibre foods instead of incorporating processed food with added sodium, fat and sweetened food or beverages. Lau recommends leaner protein sources and meat alternatives in order to control the intake of excessive fats.

Principles for success

Complex carbohydrates are broken down slowly compared to simple carbohydrates and provide more nutritional components and fibre. According to Lau, brown rice, fruits, whole grains and beans are good sources of carbohydrates and they provide more nutritional value, such as fibre and minerals, compared to white pasta, white bread, white potatoes and white rice.

A diet high in fibre will delay digestion as well. Fibre cannot be digested so it will pass through the intestine and absorb water. It will then be eliminated as faecal content. Insoluble fibre in wheat bran, whole grains, seeds and legumes, unpeeled fruits (apples and pears) and vegetables (cucumber and carrots) help to provide a more satisfying meal, which prevents overeating. This will then help with achieving a healthy body weight.

Lau says that foods that will not raise blood sugar levels, such as foods rich in protein, is also integral in a diabetic patient’s diet. Food such as fish, meat and eggs provide energy and much needed nutrition to the patient. “Do be cautious about cooking methods especially with oil and hidden sugars,” warns Lau. Examples of hidden sugars include the six to 12 grams of sugar in a half cup of pasta sauce or the five to seven grams of sugar in two tablespoons of sweet salad dressing.

As for vegetarians, beans, nuts, dhal and mock meat made out of soy can be used to replace protein in their diets. However, these are also sources of carbohydrates. Therefore, it is important that to watch portions when consuming these foods.

It isn’t all gloom and doom when it comes to being diagnosed with diabetes. Being strict about cutting down on excess carbohydrates, salt and processed food can make room for an occasional sweet treat. If you’re confused or unsure of what to do, it is always best to check with a medical professional. Lastly, do not give up hope! With good control of your diabetes, you will be able to minimise your risk of heart disease, limb amputation and stroke to live a healthy and fruitful life.


At the mamak stall…

Lau says, “If you just cannot have your drink without sugar, ask for no sugar rather than less sugar as you will then have control over the amount of sugar that you would like to add to your drink. As we know, sugar dissolves in liquid so a person can easily down five teaspoons of sugar in one drink without realising it. They can then order another drink and add sugar again. In this way, they end up exceeding their requirement of sugar for the day without even knowing it.”

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