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My Gestational Diabetes

My first pregnancy was picture-perfect. Right up until the emergency C-section, that is. (But that’s another story…)

My second pregnancy, five years later, was not so perfect.

About halfway through I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Surprise!

This came entirely out of left field for me, with no risk factors and no family history. And suddenly it was: doctor becomes patient.

Of course, I had a family physician’s knowledge of gestational diabetes. Which was decent, enough, from a medical point of view. But not nearly detailed enough for a living-it-day-to-day point of view. I suddenly found myself on a very steep learning curve, learning about gestational diabetes from the inside.

And it was fascinating.

I was referred to the diabetes education center and a dietitian who specialized in gestational diabetes. I picked her brain something fierce, in my quest for more info.

I made rapid changes to my diet. (And this is the thing about gestational diabetes, you have to figure it out and make the changes fast. You’ve only got a few weeks to get it right. But the motivation is great: it’s for your unborn baby!) And I gotta say, I have never felt so healthy and energetic. I was eating a lot of food: frequent meals and snacks. I never felt hungry. I felt way less bloated than I had been feeling earlier in my pregnancy. And, get this: although I was pregnant, I started losing a little weight! Which is not exactly what I wanted to do, in pregnancy, but it made me think about the effect this diet was having on my metabolism.

The most interesting thing was monitoring my blood sugar. I got immediate feedback about how healthy my food choices were, every time I had a meal.

So here were the things I did:

I ate smaller meals, and included snacks between meals and at bedtime. This is how you keep a nice even blood sugar level throughout the day. I did everything I could to not skip meals or snacks, because I found that if I was really late for a meal, after I eventually ate my blood sugar went crazy high.

I tried to include protein with most meals and snacks.

I became a Glycemic Index guru, and swapped all my high-GI carbs for low-GI carbs.

I avoided excess sugar. I cut out juice and pop and other forms of liquid sugar.

I (somewhat reluctantly) used Splenda in my coffee.

I ate lots of fiber-rich foods and lots of veggies.

I kept a detailed food diary (including my blood sugar recordings).

And…wait for it…

I cheated sometimes! Which is okay!! Cheating is normal, human, and helps stave off feelings of resentment and deprivation. As long as you don’t beat yourself up, and you get right back on that horse (and as long as you don’t cheat too often)…I say no problemo.

Artificial Sweeteners: A Good Idea?

When I became pregnant for the second time, I decided to eliminate artificial sweeteners from my diet. No more Splenda in my coffee. No more Diet Coke. And I felt great about that decision. Even though the evidence has not yet demonstrated a definite risk, I just felt better about keeping my diet as natural as possible. Then, about halfway through my pregnancy I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

Yeah, I know, I was shocked too. (I’m not overweight and I totally don’t fit the profile, except for, ahem, advanced maternal age).

Anyway, I then found myself having to re-evaluate the decision about sugar vs. sweeteners. I’d been happy to cut out the artificial chemicals of aspartame and Splenda. But now I knew for sure that plain ol’ sugar was harmful to my developing baby. I had to choose between the devil I knew and the devil I didn’t. So…I decided to eliminate the thing I knew was harmful (sugar) in favor of the thing that was only possibly harmful (sweeteners).

And this is how it is with decisions. We have to make decisions based on the best available evidence. Which is by no means all the evidence that will ever come to light as research, of course, is ongoing. In generations to come, pregnant women with gestational diabetes may have the definitive answer on the sugar/sweetener conundrum. But that doesn’t help anyone in the here and now.

Anyway, I discussed it with my diabetes dietitian, and she suggested I stick with the sweeteners that are the least controversial. Specifically, Splenda (sucralose). This is exactly what I did.

Now that I’m not pregnant, and my gestational diabetes has gone away, I’m free to consider my sugar-related options more openly.

Sugar is a contentious dietary issue that I’ve covered in the past. We crave sweetness, naturally, and I’m not one of those sugar-is-evil-must-eliminate-at-all-costs types. That being said, excess sugar is clearly not good for our health. As a solution to the sugar dilemma many people think: no problem. I’ll just have a sweetener instead, and that takes care of that.

But, sadly, it’s not so simple.

Recent studies have shown that people who drink even one diet soda a day have a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease and diabetes. More irritatingly perhaps, recent studies are showing that diet soda doesn’t even seem to help people lose weight.

Huh? How does that make sense? Here’s the current thinking on this paradox:

One problem is that people view diet soft drinks as a license to overindulge in other ways. I’m saving calories on my Coke, so I can order the burger and fries without guilt, right? Right?

Wrong.

There are other theories, too. The caramel flavoring in diet cola might reduce your body’s ability to process blood glucose at a molecular level. Another possibility to explain the research: it might be that people who are already overweight, and therefore at risk for diabetes and heart disease, are more likely to already be drinking that diet soda (in an attempt to lose weight).

What about sweeteners in general, not just in diet soda? Well, there’s some evidence that artificial sweeteners actually cause weight gain. This might be because all that sweetness actually fuels your sweet tooth. Making your brownie cravings that much worse. It looks like artificial sweeteners only help with weight loss if people can curb the urge to overcompensate by indulging in high-calorie foods. Which, alas, is not easy.

All told, I’m not really a fan of sweeteners anymore. Essentially, it doesn’t feel like “real food” to me. (As I keep saying to my 1-year old when he repeatedly attempts to put items like the TV remote in his mouth: “not food, sweetheart”) And if there isn’t really a health advantage anyway, what’s the point? 

Me, I think I’ll stick to limited amounts of real sugar.

You?

Vitamin Chocolate? Why Chocolate Is Good For You

In recent years, you might have heard rumors about chocolate being good for your health. And you promptly dismissed said rumors as being way too good to be true. But this week a study was published that is seriously validating the idea of chocolate as health food.

According to the folks at the British Medical Journal, chocolate is good for your heart. Really good, that is. Like, reduce-your-heart-disease-risk-by-37%-kind-of-good.

The meta-analysis published this week analyzed 53 studies on chocolate and cardiometabolic disease (meaning: heart disease and stroke, plus diabetes and metabolic syndrome). This was quickly trimmed down to seven studies, as the lower-quality or non-relevant research was weeded out.

But in those seven studies, the researchers found  that “high chocolate consumption” was associated with about a third decrease in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders—37% in the case of any cardiovascular disease and 29% in the case of stroke prevention.

Now, just a little sidebar: the “high chocolate consumption” they’re referring to is up to two pieces per week. Although they don’t specify how large those pieces were. So take that with a grain of salt.

But here’s some good news for milk chocolate lovers: this time, the studies did not differentiate between dark and milk chocolate, just chocolate consumption in general. In the past, dark chocolate has always received the press; this time, not so much.

So what makes chocolate so beneficial? The researchers speculate that the high content of polyphenols in cocoa is at the root of it all. Previous studies have shown other health-boosting effects of chocolate: it appears to lower blood pressure, cut inflammation, reduce cholesterol, and inhibit clotting. All effects that will improve a person’s cardiovascular health.

Now if this news isn’t Wicked Healthy, I don’t know what is.

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Bittersweet: What To Do About Sugar

How confused are you over sugar & sweeteners? Is sugar the devil? Does aspartame cause cancer?

To start, sugar is not inherently evil, in my opinion. And I’m not alone in that camp. However, there’s definitely controversy over this subject. In fact, the debate over sugar has been heating up for quite some time.

But until we have more definitive evidence against it, I’m going with a more intuitive approach (a term I’m going to borrow, here, from a fellow health blogger I greatly admire), which is all about listening to our bodies. Fact is, we crave sweetness. It’s a natural phenomenon. Our bodies are built for it. Right from day one, babies crave breast milk–a naturally very sweet food! 

So don’t feel bad about sugar cravings. Guilt? Not a healthy emotion.

That being said, you do need to be careful about sugar. Excessive sugar will make you gain weight, increase your risk of developing diabetes, and possibly cause even worse health consequences.

There are ways to handle your sugar intake. You just have to know what you’re doing.

In coming posts, I’ll cover various sugar substitutes and sweeteners, but let’s start with sugar itself. It comes in a variety of forms: white sugar and table sugar (technically known as sucrose), brown, raw, Demerara, cane sugar, fruit sugar, and everything in between.

Is there any difference, really, in all these forms? Not much, to be honest. I know it feels like ‘organic’ and ‘raw’ sugar should be better for you. But as far as we know right now, it’s a bit of propaganda that there’s any significant difference. You’ll just be fooling yourself that you’re eating healthfully. A better approach? Monitor your sugar intake, in all forms, and do what you can to cut down (without feeling like you have to cut it out entirely).

So how to do that?

  • Read ingredient labels. If sugar is listed as one of the top ingredients, the product probably contains a large amount of sugar. Tread carefully! 
  • Eat whole foods that are sweetened by nature (not a factory): fruit, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, dairy products…
  • Add less sugar to coffee and tea. You can modify your palate, to a certain degree. Get used to half as much sugar, then see if you can cut back even more.
  • Reduce sugar in foods you make at home. Try new recipes or modify your own. Start by reducing sugars gradually, and try adding spices like cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, and ginger. Try this: spiced foods will taste sweeter if warmed.
  • Buy fewer soft drinks, fruity/sweetened drinks and sweet desserts. Remember: some low-fat desserts may be very high in sugar.

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Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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