Springday takes 5 with Nutritionist Alex Shand

Springday interviewed New Zealand based nutritionist Alex Shand who provided expert advice on sugar and carbs and how to implement a healthy diet.

1. Can you please explain the effect of sugar on the human body?

The human body digests sugars and breaks them down through a series of enzymatic processes into the simple, short chain sugar molecules known as ‘monosaccharides’. These include glucose, galactose and fructose, and are used by the body’s cells as the fastest, most convenient form of energy.

However, there are a number of negative effects of sugar consumption, especially excess consumption, on the human body, such as

  • Blood glucose spikes – Short chain sugars are readily absorbed, causing a surge in their presence in the blood system. As the sugar is rapidly broken down and either used up or stored, this causes blood glucose to rapidly drop too, leading to feelings of fatigue, mood swings, headaches and cravings for more sugar.
  • Tooth decay – Sugar provides easily digestible energy for the bad bacteria in the mouth. The bacteria create acids that destroy the protective, enamel layer on teeth.
  • Increased risk of diabetes and metabolic syndromes – insulin is the key hormone used by the human body to assist the processing of glucose (blood sugar). Too much glucose in the blood, caused by high intake of sugars in the diet, causes the insulin to stop working efficiently. The cells become resistant to it. Insulin resistance is the precursor to a number of diseases, including metabolic syndrome, obesity, heart disease and, most commonly, diabetes.
  • Increased stress levels – To control the spike and drop in blood glucose levels caused by sugar intake, the human body releases stress hormones. These hormones can make us feel anxious, stressed and irritable. 


2. What are your tips to replace or decrease sugar consumption in everyday life?

  • Reduce/eliminate the intake of processed foods. These generally contain large amounts of added sugar to improve and enhance taste and flavour, as well as act as a preservative for shelf stable products. 
  • Watch your intake of packaged/processed sauces and condiments. Where possible, make your own and monitor the addition of sugar in foods, such as salad dressings, pasta sauces, hummus, and marinades.
  • Add flavour to cooking by using herbs and spices. This reduces/eliminates the need to add sugar.
  • Where possible, avoid/reduce drinks that contain added sugar. These include fruit juices, soda and hot drinks with added table sugar.
  • If you require a sweet kick, opt for natural sugar substitutes/sweeteners such as ‘stevia’ or‘monk fruit’ (Luo Han Guo). Other natural sweetening options include sugar alcohols, such as erythritol, sorbitol and xylitol. However, caution should be taken as these are known to cause gastrointestinal discomfort if consumed in excess.


3. How bad is fruit sugar?

Fruit sugar has gained a bad reputation as a high sugar product due to the main source of sugar in fruit is fructose, which is a monosaccharide, with negative metabolic effects, as discussed. However, fruit contains a number of important nutrients, which contribute to the ability of humans to be capable of tolerating the levels of fructose.

Fruits are not simply packets of sugar. They contain fibre, which contributes to satiety and chewing resistance, slowing down digestion in the intestine. The uptake of fructose is hence slowed down, allowing the liver to properly process and easily tolerate the sugar levels from the individual fruit. The presence of fibre and its ability to slow carbohydrate digestion also contributes to satiety, helping you feel fuller for longer and reduce overeating.

In addition, fruits contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. The human body requires these nutrients to function properly and should be obtained through the daily consumption of nutrient-dense foods. In contrast, added sugars do not contain any nutritional benefits.

In some circumstances, intake of fruits should be reduced/avoided. People with fructose intolerance should avoid fruit to prevent the onset of digestive symptoms and discomfort. On a very low-carbohydrate/ketogenic diet, fruits should also be avoided.

A ketogenic diet is one whereby the dietary intake of carbohydrates is reduced to 20-30g per day, forcing the body to process dietary fat and protein for primary energy. One piece of fruit can contain around 15-20g of carbohydrates; hence one piece can possibly prevent the body from entering ketosis. 

4. Where does my body get the energy from if I cut down carbs?

The body metabolises energy from three main sources found in the foods that we consume – carbohydrates, fat and protein. If the diet consists of a balanced abundance of all three nutrients, the carbohydrates and fats will be metabolised and primarily used for energy by the cells. Protein will be metabolised to amino acids and these building blocks used for a number of important biological functions, including cell growth, making hormones, and muscle repair.

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body’s cells, as they can only be stored in limited quantities. The body uses up the broken down carbohydrate molecules (glucose) and stores any excess as fat. Required essential fatty acids are used when we consume fats and any excess fat is stored easily and efficiently by our fat cells. When carbohydrates are not readily available, the body uses these fat stores as an energy source.

When there is a shortage of fats and/or carbohydrates, proteins can also be used by the body to yield energy. However, this process is not efficient and prevents the proteins from being able to effectively perform their required functions within cells. It is, therefore, important to ensure that the body is receiving sufficient energy from carbohydrate and fat sources. On a low carbohydrate diet, it is important that the total fat content of the diet is increased to provide sufficient energy to the body’s cells. These should be primarily “good” fats (unsaturated fats) from fish, nuts, seeds and oils, with a limited intake of saturated and Trans fats.

5. What are your top 5 tips for a healthy diet in regards to sugar and carbs?

  • Tip 1: Reduce your intake of added sugars from food, opting for natural sources such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products.
  • Tip 2: Read the label and check for the presence of added sugar – examples include dextrose, fructose, sucrose, glucose, brown sugar, maltose, cane sugar. Also, check for the presence of ingredients perceived as “natural” sources of sugar, as these are also a source of added sugar. These ingredients include honey, agave nectar, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, beet sugar, corn syrup, malt syrup and rice syrup. The higher up the ingredient list, the higher the presence of any of these sugar ingredients.
  • Tip 3: Limit alcohol consumption – beer, wine and liqueurs contain carbohydrates, especially beer with large amounts of readily digestible carbohydrates. The mixer used with spirits, such as juice and soda can also contain significant amounts of added sugars, up to 40g of sugar per serving, contributing a large amount to the daily 90g recommendation.
  • Tip 4: If you have a sweet tooth and require added sweetness to foods and/or drinks, opt for natural sweetness substitutes such as ‘stevia’ and ‘Luo Han Guo’.
  • Tip 5: Unless required to on a ketogenic diet, don’t eliminate all carbohydrates from your diet. Carbohydrates are an important source of both immediate and sustained energy for the body’s cells. Choosing the right source of sustainable carbohydrates, such as whole grains, as opposed to short chain sugars, such as table sugar in sweets and soda, is the key to maintaining balanced nutrition and healthy bodily function. 

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