The Hidden Killer We’re Addicted To

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All the talk about the recent release of Trainspotting 2 got me thinking about the hidden drug out there that we’re all taking and it could as well be called cake. No, I’m not parodying Chris Morris’ Brass Eye, I’m referring to the rise of sugar and carbohydrates as a stealth addiction that can result in protracted and painful illness and death.

Let’s wind the clock back a few years to when we were told that fat was the hidden killer in our diet and we all needed to eat more healthily. We all switched from butter to margarine and stopped drinking full-fat milk with the cream at the top. Our ever-reliable food industry sprang into action to reduce the fat content in their products but they didn’t taste as good so they increased the sugar content and we all merrily went on our way feeling better about our new healthy lifestyle.

Except that wasn’t the case. It appears that natural fats – such as butter and cream – are not bad for us after all (in appropriate quantities). The issue with sugar and carbohydrates is that whilst their conversion to glucose and distribution through our bloodstream to our organs is essential for us to function, any excess is turned to fat and which can become more dangerous when it lands up around our waist.

Ok, I hear you say, we shall just switch to a diet that is reduced in sugar and carbohydrates and then our bodies will in time burn up the excess fat stored around our belly – perhaps with an exercise plan to speed things up a bit – and it will disappear. Hurrah! And yes, I will agree with you there – a low sugar/carbohydrate diet will certainly result in weight loss if done in a structured manner.

The challenge, however, takes us back to my opening line and more so the sugars present in carbohydrate-heavy items such as cake. It is incredibly addictive. Eating a sugary snack provides a short-term energy boost. Oh, and added to that it is proven that sugars stimulate the feel-good brain chemical serotonin and the resulting release of endorphins so in addiction terms we get ‘relaxed’ and a little bit ‘high’. And research would suggest this is accompanied by a hardwired brain response that says ‘Feed me. Feed me now’ as the crash that follows demands another sugary snack to get back up to those heady heights. And another. And another. Why do you think we binge-eat of an evening?

Again, the easy answer would appear to be some discipline and self-control to restrict the sweets or chocolate bars to an occasional treat. But our friends in the food industry have struck again: when you start looking at the make-up of the foodstuffs in your weekly shop, particularly the low-fat ranges and processed items such as bread, yoghurts, and juices, you’ll discover that a lot of sugar has been added to what we would generally consider everyday items. So even if you think you are eating more healthily, you are in fact still feeding the habit and feeling good at the same time for all the wrong reasons.

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Data from America indicates that over 70% of their population are overweight and 50% have pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes. We’re probably not that far behind. Now we all like nothing more than a fad to follow so chances are that despite taking some personal responsibility with diets in place and regular sessions at the gym, if the smaller quantities going in are still wrong then that problem isn’t getting properly fixed.

Now if you decide you want to make a change then it is worthwhile remembering that as a rule, it takes 28 days/four weeks to make or break a habit. Addiction is a habit. Processed foods and sugars are a habit.

First things first: you need to know what you are eating. Processed ‘white’ products such as bread, flour, and sugar, and indeed starchy potatoes, need to be ruled out. ‘Brown’ products such as wholegrains are loaded with fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, all which stabilise blood sugar and help reduce diabetes, blood pressure and obesity. So, we’re looking at brown bread, brown rice, whole grain pasta, oatmeal and quinoa for example being ruled in.

Second, not all fats are bad. Choose healthy ones such as olive oil, nuts (unsalted), seeds, avocado, and fatty fish e.g. salmon. And I love a bit of Kerrygold on my wholemeal toast in the morning.

Thirdly, personal responsibility: read the ingredients on products that you buy and look out for the sugar and salt contents, especially on low-fat products when it is usually in the ‘red for danger’ zone. Even better, why not stop buying processed foods and start making your own meals from scratch. Remember though, what goes in needs to be right so as a rule of thumb for your plate:

Protein: a serving of meat, poultry or fish should be no bigger than the size of your palm.

Carbs: a serving should be the size of your fist – squeezed tight.

Fats: the fat content should be no more than the size of your thumb.

Fruit and Veg: as much as you like, within reason – remember to wash the pesticides off before cooking/eating though.

And like with any resolution, allow yourself the full 28-day cycle to implement it – you don’t need to make a full switch on day one and if you do decide to then don’t be surprised if your body plays up a bit in reaction as it suffers sugar-withdrawal symptoms (‘cold turkey’ – remember Trainspotting 1?)

In conjunction with this it’s also worthwhile making some lifestyle considerations. The recommended daily calorie intake for men is 2,500 with a reduction to 2,000 to lose one pound/week. For women, it is 2,000 calories a day with a reduction to 1,500 to lose one pound/week. But this data is historic and based on more active lifestyles than are evident today. A recent programme I utilised based on my age and mostly sedentary routine gave me a 1,800 daily calorie limit – and this was in conjunction with a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) programme – so it is worthwhile checking out that even if you’re eating the right things, you’re not eating too much and that you are incorporating some exercise into your new routine.

And don’t be put off by the word ‘exercise’. Did you know that a simple walk round the block will not only stretch a few muscles, especially if you up the tempo, but will also improve your mental health and well-being as your serotonin levels increase and endorphins get released – now surely that’s a much better way to get high.

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