When I got the results back from Futura Genetics, one surprising result was that I’m doubly likely to develop Type I Diabetes at some point in life. I also carry an obesity gene. Having seen my aunty monitoring her blood sugar levels and injecting insulin (a sugar-processing/fat-creating hormone) her entire life, I would do anything to avoid a similar fate. So, I decided it was time to ditch the sugar, lose a few pounds, and do some research on a lifestyle change – a sugar-free one.
For anyone interested in why fat has been touted as a huge danger to health rather than sugar, read this incredibly sad article from the Guardian. America told the world that fat was the enemy. The UK followed suit. But rather than getting healthier, we’re seeing record levels of obesity and sugar-related health concerns. Why? Have a read. It’s fascinating to wonder how our lives would be different considering researchers now say advice to cut fats should have never been given.
A slice of your pizza base alone has more sugar than a 2l bottle of Pepsi Max
Now, surprisingly ditching sugar it’s not just about giving up sweets and ice cream. Carbs – the same stuff pizza, pasta, bread, rice, corn etc is made of – converts to sugar in your body. Some simple carbs convert quickly, such as fructose in fruit and lactose in milk, and some slowly, such as the complex carbs in potatoes or rice (complex carbs are made of a string of sugars all linked together, the body breaks these down into their simple sugar). Whatever happens, it’s all broken down and it all turns to sugar, which your body uses as a cheap source of energy (calories). Of course, if you don’t use more energy than you intake, the body saves it as fat for the next time you might be starving. And as the process is fairly quick, it’s easy to feel hungry again and take in far more calories than you use.
Wonderful, huh? As a species, sugar as a commodity has only really been in our diets for the past 300 years – we’re relatively new to the ingredient as a whole. Before then it was an unaffordable luxury. Now? It’s far easier and cheaper to buy a sugary drink than a bottle of water.
And the worst part? The body doesn’t discriminate. The genetically-modified sugar contained in a doughnut is treated EXACTLY like the sugar found in an organic, handpicked-by-a-small-Spanish-woman-off-her-own-tree fruit.
1g fat = 9 calories. 1g carbohydrates = 4 calories
What about actual fat, though? After all, aren’t we all told to be on low-fat diets, that fat is bad? This is the reason fat = bad advice has been pushed for years – without any evidence to actually support those claims (Harcombe et al., 2015). Every gramme of fat contains nine calories. Every gramme of sugar only has four. So eating fat means eating more calories. Therefore, eating carbs means fewer calories. Surely a low-fat diet seems like the answer, as I’d be eating fewer calories all round. But the difference is in the breakdown.
Fat doesn’t need insulin to process it. And where insulin goes, fat is made. Confusing? Damn right. Sugar turns into fat. Not fat.
What happens when you eat carbs
Regardless of whether they’re complex or simple, at the end of the process all carbohydrates are transformed into glucose, increasing blood sugar levels. This sugar then whizzes around the body being used in muscles for energy, the brain, etc. When the body senses this surge of sugar, the pancreas gets to work sending out insulin to remove the excess. If the liver thinks there’s too much sugar whizzing about, it doesn’t just poop it out or send it to the kidneys to be removed. No, being the thrifty organ it is, it transforms the excess sugar into a fatty acid (fat fat fat) and sends it back out into the blood stream where it finds a nice home, perhaps on your love handles, or around your heart. Somewhere it can be accessed if needed.
You have two hormones, though, that are created in the pancreas that never meet each other, but that work to process sugar. One is insulin. The other is glucagon. The latter hormone is released when your body needs energy and blood sugar levels are too low. It takes all your stored fat and uses it to raise blood sugar levels for energy (and to stop that crankiness that results from h-anger). That’s why, when people starve, they lose all their fat. It’s physics. No one, not anyone, will have fat stores left if they die of starvation regardless of their genetic make up. The body uses everything it can when it senses blood sugar levels fall, and when food intake is nil, it’ll even use muscles to feed on for energy.
So that’s (very, very simply) what happens when you eat carbs. Every time. Every slice of bread, each bowl of pasta, those ‘healthy’ baked chips without a smidgen of fat, your ‘healthy’ low-fat yoghurt which actually has way more sugar to make it taste nice, and 100% fruit juice packed full of ‘natural sugar’; from potatoes to peas, bread to broccoli.
And as most of the time the energy from sugars is used quickly, it can lead people to feel hungry again and snack. Usually on more carbs. Which increases calorie consumption. And still makes them hungry. So more snacks are needed. More calories. Etc.
You know all your cells? They kinda need fat to survive
Ok, so we’ve established sugar is actually what causes weight gain, insulin-based brain fog, and sluggishness. That’s evident by our modern-day diets of carbs carbs carbs and low-fat-must-be-good (so let’s add loads of sugar) dietary habits. ‘But Laura,’ I hear you cry. ‘If you’re not eating carbs, and carbs create energy in the body (for that is what a calorie is) how will you function?’ Well, there’s a good answer. Let’s discuss that dreaded word, FAT.
Fat is ESSENTIAL for every one of the billions of cells in our body. Every cell has what’s called a lipid bilayer surrounding it. This layer is made of lipids, a.k.a, fat. They hate water, and so because this layer is damn good at its job, it keeps bacteria and nasty viruses out of the cell. A restricted fat diet can cause cell damage and breakdown, letting these nasties in. Ew.
There are also fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, K and oh yes, vitamin D) that NEED fat to work. Low fat = low absorption. So no only are cells being damaged, there’s a risk of vitamin deficiency. Oh, and fat is used for energy.
The brain needs fat to work, too
When you eat fats, bile breaks them down before they’re reformed into triglycerides and coated in a dusting of proteins. Leaving the intestines, they travel through the lymphatic system and then hit the blood stream. There, they work their way to the brain to help strengthen nerve cells, provide energy to muscles, form steroid-based hormones, and the rest. Rather than glucose’s only purpose for energy and nothing more, fat serves a multitude of functions.
Of course, there are limits. There are good fats and bad fats. And as fat contains calories it can still be stored away for the next time you’re fasting, so ensuring calorie control is essential. However, the difference with a low-carb-high-fat diet is massive: you feel way fuller for longer without that annoying blood sugar crash and high. When fat enters the stomach and starts getting digested, the body slows everything right down and sends messages saying ‘FULL THANKS, CLOSED FOR BUSINESS’ while it tackles the breakdown. So you eat less. Insulin production isn’t affected, so no hormone surge, and a happy pancreas.
It’s why low-fat diets are doomed to fail; cutting out the one thing that actually makes someone feel full is a (carb heavy) recipe for disaster.
So, how am I ditching carbs and fattening up (not literally)?
As I now have institutional access to loads of scientific journals (thanks, uni) I decided to check whether cutting carbs was the right thing to do. After all, the government advises we should be eating over 200g of carbs a day, and 90g of sugar. I wanted to go carb-free, or near enough at 20g a day to start, then 15g, then 10g. My goal is to follow the ketogenic diet, which sets an absolute upper limit of carbs, a target of protein, and a very high-fat content for sustenance.
So I read about studies showing how cancer cells feed off the sugar we eat to get their energy and multiply, and that a 25% reduction of carbs can sensitise previously unresponsive lymphoma cells to chemotherapy, increasing treatment options (Rubio-Patiño et al., 2016). That excess glucose and fructose (those simple carbs) can be devastating (Barazzoni et al., 2016) to those who have had surgery. And how it’s proven sugary soft drinks cause obesity.
I was convinced low carb is scientifically proven to have health benefits, so I did it.
And I’m a testament to not needing glucose to function. I eat my meals in a 5:20:75 ratio, with a max of 1248 calories a day. 5% is carbs. That’s 15g. A chocolate bar can contain 3x my daily carb allowance. 20% is protein, at 62g. The rest? Fat. If I wanted to maintain my weight – which I will do after I’ve lost a few pounds, then I’d just force myself to eat more fat (remember what I said about feeling hungry? I hardly ever feel hungry).
In a month, I’ve felt far, far more alert. My skin looks incredible. I’ve been tired with uni, but not that hangry type of tired mood that makes me a priceless joy to be around. I’ve not had any colds or sniffles despite Freshers’ Flu. I’ve lost 3lbs, and a whopping TWO INCHES OFF MY HIPS. I’m not a gym bunny, so make your own mind up there. I sleep like a grandfather during Songs of Praise. And sex is INCREDIBLE now. David has joined me and lost 11-12lbs in four weeks with semi-regular gym attendance. He’s always had a kitten-like belly (weak) but now he doesn’t suffer as much with the farts, pukes, or poops. His skin also looks amazing, and did I mention sex is incredible?
So, eating fat – surprisingly – doesn’t make you fat. Why? Because fat is so filling it’s easier to not feel hungry and snack. It’s got way more functions too, so fat get shared around the body with any left-overs being stored away as needed. But eating sugar does make you hungry. It’s easy to consume more and snack more. It also affects your insulin production, is responsible for those 3pm crashes after lunch, and can damage your insides irreparably.
How much sugar disguised as carbs are you really eating?
Even if you’re on a health kick and not drinking fizzy pop and eating chocolate, you could still be getting WAY too much sugar purely through your lunchtime sarnie or curry with (supposedly better for you) brown rice. Don’t believe me? Next time you’re food shopping check out the nutritional labels. Carbs (of which sugars) ring a bell? 4g of sugar is roughly one teaspoon. A typical slice of bread could contain around 2g of sugar. That’s one slice. A sandwich needs two slices. So that’s 4g sugar in the bread alone. 1 teaspoon of sugar in your bread alone. Unthinkable, to someone who might feel it’s healthier than a Ginsters pasty. A wrap? A healthy, wholewheat wrap? That’s at least 20g right there. A not so healthy option.
Regardless of where the carb originates – from bread or berries – doesn’t change the fact it becomes a slow-burn sugar or a use-me-now sugar.
With my genes working against me, it was the logical choice and I’m so glad my genes test gave me the impetus to do it. Do I miss sugar? Weirdly, not really. I have the old hankering for a pack of Revels every weekend, but it’s more a psychological attachment at this stage. That I need something to munch on while I work or watch a film. I don’t miss crisps or pasta nearly as much as this self-confessed Sicilian sugar addict pick n mix for breakfast thought I would.
I have caved a few times. David and I treated ourselves to a KFC boneless banquet, and I’m a sucker for a sugary mojito. But overall, I’m loving how alive I feel. I wonder how many people are following outdated advice that fat is evil and sabotaging their own health, for not much gain.
A typical meal dayBREAKFAST: 2 eggs fried in extra virgin olive oil, three rashers of bacon, three gluten-free sausages, coffee with single cream to sip on.
LUNCH: Cheeses, meats, and raw spinach, with an oil-based dressing.
DINNER: If hungry, bun-less burgers / lamb koftas / broccoli and stilton soup / curry chicken thighs with fried paneer / pulled pork with homemade guacamole, lashings of soured cream, cheese and spinach / roast chicken salad (not all in one go, obviously).
If not hungry, then a small snack before bed