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HOW SWEET ARE YOU?

January 21st, 2015

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HOW SWEET ARE YOU?

Speaking of unfriendly food for the heart, we usually think of fatty foods first, especially animal fat high in cholesterol, causing narrowed artery or coronary artery disease.

However, there is another group of foods that is just as guilty for causing heart diseases – carbohydrates. Lately, more and more people are consuming too much carbohydrates, as evident in a research in the US which found that American people consume 50% more sugar than they did 50 years ago.

Carbohydrates is just like fat – there’s the good guy and there’s the bad guy, and consuming too much of either would be bad for the health anyway. The bad guy is table sugar (sucrose) made from sugarcane or sugar beets. Apart from that, the bad guy’s friends are glucose, fructose and lactose. Sucrose is actually half fructose half glucose.

No matter what kind of sugar, they all share the same quality, which is sweetness. A type of sugar that is more and more consumed today is fructose, commonly found in fruits and honey. It is said that in the past people did not consume this kind of sugar much, but now we are consuming it more through corn syrup used prevalently in the food industry to add sweet taste.

In some countries such as the US, sucrose accounts for as much as 20% of daily caloric intake, and this is a major cause of obesity. Sugar is high in calories but does not fill the stomach (while fat, although also high in calories, keeps the stomach full longer). In other words, sugar makes you fat without being aware, while fatty food makes you aware, but not necessarily think twice since it’s so irresistible sometimes.

Food and drinks today are full of sugar. Even fresh fruit juices are high in sugar and can cause obesity as well.

Fructose, when consumed too little, will not trigger insulin like glucose does, which is a good thing. However, studies done in animals found that too much fructose can cause diabetes and insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that controls sugar level in our body. If the body does not respond to insulin, diabetes can occur.

Apart from that, fructose, which is prevalent in fruits and sweeteners in desserts, is generally metabolised in liver. If we consume too much, it will affect lipid levels, meaning triglyceride level will increase while HDL cholesterol will decrease. It also causes fat to collect at the liver, so called fatly liver. There have been reports that say fructose can be blamed for liver disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and inflammation in many organs such as arteries and joints.

Some people explain that fructose causes obesity since it does not trigger insulin, so it does not trigger the feeling of satiation. It will also trigger other hormones to tell the body that we are not full yet, like after we drink fruit juice or sweet drinks.

Although fructose is abundant in fruits, it does not mean you should avoid fruits. Fruits are rich in vitamins and minerals that are useful for us. Some fruits have anti-oxidant properties which can slow down the aging process and prevent certain illnesses. Fruits should be consumed moderately. Avoid fruit juice made from concentrate. Fresh fruit juice is good as long as you don’t drink more than one glass per day.

A can of soda gives as many calories as a can of fruit juice, or as many as 6-7 servings of fresh fruits (about 6-7 oranges). However, fruit juice still has more vitamins, minerals and fibre than soda, which has no nutrition value at all. But it is important to remember also that fruit juice has lower fibre content than fresh fruits.

There is a Thai saying that says “Sweetness is like wind. Bitterness is medicine.” In this case, sweetness is more like a fierce storm if consumed too much – it can be quite destructive to the health!

Prof Nithi Mahanonda is consultant cardiologist and interventionist, Perfect Heart Institute.

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