Sugar – the highs, lows and alternatives

Sugar - the highs, lows and alternatives

Sugar, in all its shapes and forms, is always a cause for debate. This month we take a look at sugar, to find out what it is, the effects it has on the body (highs and lows) and also put forward some alternative suggestions to obtain that sweet taste.

So what is sugar?

Most of us associate the word “sugar” with the white granulated stuff that we have at home to add to a cup of coffee or tea, or that you find in cafes. But there are many types.

Sugar is a soluble carbohydrate, that tastes sweet. Most plants contain natural “sugar”. Sugar is also added to many food products during processing. The main reason our bodies need sugar is to provide energy, so that our cells, tissues and organs can function normally. We get this energy from the food that we eat.

After eating, as part of the digestive system, your body breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars, to be absorbed into the blood stream, and from there to be carried to your cells to provide energy. This process needs insulin. (In simple terms, insulin is a hormone, produced by the pancreas, which is needed to turn food into energy). Remember, our body needs energy to keep functioning!

The main types of sugar are:

  1. Glucose – the bodies preferred energy source
  2. Fructose (fruit sugar), by this we mean the type which occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables (not the processed variety)
  3. Sucrose – table sugar (fructose and glucose are joined together). This is a refined (processed) sugar made from sugar cane and sugar beet.

Natural fructose and glucose behave differently in the body. Every cell in the body can use glucose for energy, but only the liver can break down fructose. Natural sugars also behave differently in the body to processed sugars.

When you read your food labels (on foods bought from the supermarkets), watch out for processed fructose which is added to many foods or drinks: words like high fructose syrup (manufactured from corn starch), dextrose, barley malt or maltose are all processed sugars. Beware “low fat” food items; manufacturers tend to remove fat and add sugar instead. Also remember that just looking at the sugar amount on the food label, it will not differentiate between naturally occurring sugars and those which have been added – read the ingredients.

Blood sugar (blood glucose) levels

Blood sugar and blood glucose level are terms used interchangeably. They vary throughout the day, dropping naturally before a meal.

Carbohydrates (carbs) are starches that give energy to the body. But not all carbs react the same. Some, like those found in cakes, white bread, potatoes (and potato crisps), are quickly absorbed by the body, which brings a quick spike to blood sugar levels. These are called simple carbohydrates. Sucrose, processed, sugar, is in this category. After a quick spike in blood sugar levels, there is always a corresponding low. This low, a slump in the day, can be characterized by brain fog, tiredness, grumpiness and irritability, which often leads us to reach for food or drinks that can “wake us up” – biscuits, cakes, crisps, white bread and so on. And the cycle continues.

Other carbs, like those found in vegetables, beans and wholegrains (like brown rice, millet, quinoa), are more slowly digested and released, bringing a steady release of energy over a longer term. There is no spike in blood sugar levels and no low. These are called complex carbohydrates.

Measuring sugar content: Glycaemic index (GI) and glycaemic load (GL)

Scientists like to measure things and sugar is no exception. They have developed an index, which gives you an indication of the effect of each food item on your blood sugar level. Glycaemic index looks at the effect of the carbohydrate content of each food item on the body. Food items with a high GI number (55 or higher) raise the blood sugar level quickly. Low- GI ranked foods (numbers less than 55) are more slowly digested, so have a lower and slower effect on your glucose (blood sugar) levels.

Glycaemic load takes the GI a little further, by taking in account the quantity of carbohydrates in that food item, so it can more accurately measure the effect of each food type on your blood sugar levels. The higher the quantity of carbs, the higher the GL will be. Some items have a relatively high glycaemic index, but actually contain a low quantity of carbs. For example, watermelon is has GI value of around 72, but it contains few carbs, so its GL value is 4 – very low.

Let´s compare an apple and a potato. An apple has a glycaemic index of 40. It contains around 15 grams of carbohydrate, which means its GL is 6g. A small jacket (baked) potato contains the same amount of carbs (15g) but has a GI double that of an apple (80), so it has double the GL (12g). These numbers tell you that the small baked potato will have twice the effect of an apple on your blood sugars – causing that spike more rapidly.

(If you double the amount of a particular food item that you eat, the GI stays the same, but the GL (load) will double, because you have doubled the quantity).

It’s a big topic and can get complicated. There are plenty of resources available on the internet if you want to explore this in more depth. To read one scientific article (available free online from Diabetes Care) which lists food items and explains how the scientists came up with these values follow this link(external site).


In people with diabetes, the pancreas is unable to provide sufficient insulin – either it does not provide enough insulin, or what it does provide cannot be used by the body (the body resists it) or both. For people with diabetes, eating low GI, and particularly low GL, foods can help to manage their blood sugar levels. This means including things like chickpeas, lentils and beans, vegetables and whole grains (choose brown or wholegrain rice over short-grain white rice) into your diet.

The Fruit sugar debate

There have been many TV programmes aired over recent years about the “evils” of fruit sugar. We agree that having a diet that contains high volumes of fruit, to the exclusion of all other foods might not be the most balanced or sensible thing to do, however eating one apple is not “bad.” Quite the opposite. When you eat fruit, it’s a great source of many vitamins and minerals, anti-oxidants and so on. It is also a good source of dietary fibre, which means that fruit has got good nutritional benefits for the body. The phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is worth remembering! Regular table sugar, or sugars in cakes or sweets, do not bring any of these added vitamins and minerals being mainly void of nutrition, but giving you calories instead. For us, the debate about fructose is actually saying that we need to watch the amount of added processed sugars that we consume.

Saying that, if you wish to juice during your retreat, and want to reduce or exclude fruit, we offer you the option to have low fruit or no fruit in each juice.

No or Low carb diets

Sometimes guests come to the retreat and ask about following a low (or no) carb diet. Our body needs energy to function – to grow, to breathe, to replenish. Excluding all carbs is not really possible anyhow, as carbs are found in all products, including veggies (except water!). Rather than saying “all carbs are bad”, include sources that have a smoother effect on your body. Swap potatoes for sweet potatoes instead. Maybe reduce bread intake (and eat brown or seeded varieties instead). Boiling (or steaming) a potato reduces the GI and GL rather than baking or roasting. If your body does not receive sufficient energy through the food you consume, it starts to break down stored fat, which can have detrimental side effects on your long term health.

“Energy drinks”

Just a quick comment about energy drinks. Check the contents before reaching for your favourite next time you experience a slump. These drinks often contain high levels of sugars, as well as caffeine or other stimulant(s) to “pick you up”. Try something more natural instead, take a big drink of water and try resting! Remember, after a spike, there is usually a low – and the cycle will continue.

Alternative sources of sweetness

There are a number of alternative sources of sweetness in the market today. Some will be available in mainstream supermarkets and for others you might need to make a visit to your local health food store.

  • Fruit – try using fruit as an alternative source of sweetness in cooked or raw dishes. For example in our BBQ sauce we use plums or pineapple to bring a sweetness to the sauce, rather than using a sweetener or processed sugar.
  • Dried fruit – like raisins, dates, dried apricots and so on can be a great snack. Be careful when you buy dried fruit to avoid those brands that have added sugar. Dried fruit is sweet enough! We use dates in our raw “Energy” balls, for a great healthy snack.
  • Rice syrup – we tend to use rice syrup in recipes that call for added sweetness (where we cannot use fruit or veggies easily). Rice syrup is made from cooked rice. It has a relatively high glycaemic index (higher than table sugar), with a GL of around 8, but as a liquid sweetener it is better than processed sugars. See our recipe for raw beetroot cake for a lovely tasty (and easy) dessert.
  • Maple syrup – is made from the sap from maple trees and contains some beneficial vitamins and minerals. It is better to eat than table sugar (has a slightly lower GI and GL (GL is around 10 depending upon brand and grade), but select a good grade and make sure it is genuine maple syrup (not maple flavoured!). Still keep consumption to a minimum.
  • Honey – honey is a bee product so it is not considered to be vegan, which is one reason why we do not use this at La Crisalida Retreats. Again, it has a lower GI and GL (around 8 or 9 depending upon the brand) than table sugar.
  • Agave syrup – this is made from agave (a plant, which tequila is made from!). It can be sweeter than honey. There is an ongoing debate whether agave is good or bad (it involves some processing to make the syrup) – it does have a low GL (around 1 or 2) so for that reason we think it may be a better option than processed table sugar or honey.

In short, sugar is a huge topic in nutrition circles, and there is always new research being published about what to eat or not eat. If you know you have a “sweet tooth” and regularly reach for sugar (adding the granulated sugar to foods, eating sweets or chocolate or eating high amounts of processed foods), we suggest swapping your sugar source for one that is better for your body. At the same time, we suggest that you increase the amount of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, nuts and seeds in your diet. Eat less processed foods and you will automatically be reducing your sugar intake, and making a change for the better. Over time, as you eat more vegetables and wholegrains, you will naturally start to want to eat less sugar.

Whether you choose to come to La Crisalida for your detox retreat, or for a yoga retreat, cutting down on processed sugars is part of our programme, designed to help you to relax and to remove the stress from your body. Read more about the food served here or about juicing during your retreat.

To your health and wellbeing.


About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).