By Richard Seah
In its “war against diabetes” the government – led by the Health Minister and the CEO of the Health Promotion Board – is promoting the ridiculous message that eating rice is more harmful than taking sugary soft drinks.
This shows a total lack of understanding about basic nutrition. It also goes against the rest of the medical community worldwide, which, in recent years, has produced report after report about the many harmful effects of sugar. The Health Minister and the CEO of HPB are unfit to be in their positions.
Let’s look at the one most important differences between rice and sugar.
First, To understand the issue, we need to know that all types of carbohydrates have to be broken down into their basic forms before they can be used by the body. The three basic forms are:
- Glucose, which enters the blood stream to provide energy for our cells, including the brain cells;
- Fructose, also known as fruit sugar, which does not directly enter the bloodstream but has to be processed by the liver.
- Galactose, which is found mainly in milk products. It does not play as big a role as glucose or fructose.
RICE: Rice is a complex carbohydrate made up of many glucose molecules joined together. It takes some time to digest and the digestion process is slowed down when we eat rice with fat, protein and other foods – which we normally do.
Once rice is digested, glucose enters the blood stream. The body then produces insulin, which transports the glucose to the cells. When the body fails to produce insulin, or when the insulin fails to do its job of delivering glucose to the cells, the result is diabetes, or high blood glucose.
In this sense, eating too much rice – or other complex carbohydrates like other grains and starchy root vegetables – will contribute to diabetes.
SUGAR: Sugar is a simple carbohydrate made up of just two molecules – glucose and fructose.
HFCS or High Fructose Corn Syrup is a modern sweetener made up of 55% fructose, 42% glucose plus a bit of other things. In HFCS, the fructose and glucose are mechanically mixed together. In natural sugar, the fructose and glucose are chemically bound.
Because of its simple molecular structure, sugar / HFCS gets digested quickly. This is why sugar is the best “medicine” if you suffer from hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar (which makes you hungry, weak and irritable and can cause you to faint or even die.)
Fructose does not enter the bloodstream directly. It will not cause “high blood glucose” since it is not glucose. So for a long time, scientists thought that fructose was good for people with diabetes. BUT…
New understanding of how the body works tells us that fructose needs to be processed by the liver, which is the body’s main organ for processing toxins. In fact, the liver deals with fructose in the same way that it deals with alcohol. Because of this, some scientists consider fructose to be a “liver toxin”.
This is an excellent lecture by Dr Robert Lustig, explaining why fructose is toxic. It is 1.5 hours long and a short section is a bit technical. But the bulk of the lecture is actually very layman friendly.
The human body can only handle small amounts of fructose, such as what you might consume from eating small servings of fruit. However, the modern diet contains huge amounts of fructose from sugar and HFCS used liberally in soft drinks and practically all processed foods.
Excessive fructose produces a condition called metabolic syndrome. In turn, metabolic syndrome produces a wide range modern ailments and disease conditions, including diabetes and obesity. Thus, sugar / HFCS / fructose is now known to be an even greater cause of diabetes compared with rice / glucose. Besides diabetes and obesity, metabolic syndrome produced by excessive fructose also causes fatty liver, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack and stroke.
Also, when the liver processes fructose, one of the by-products is uric acid. This causes gout – an extremely painful condition produced by swelling of the joints, usually at the large toe. Gout is normally blamed on a diet high in meat and beans. But too much fructose from sugar will also cause gout.
CHRONIC INFLAMMATION: Yet another problem with sugar is that produces chronic inflammation – a condition where various organs and other parts of the body are constantly swollen or inflamed. Again, chronic inflammation is linked to diabetes and obesity.
New understanding further tells us that chronic inflammation is the primary cause of heart disease. It causes blood vessels to get swollen and to rupture. Then the body patches up the damage with a covering of cholesterol. Over time, constant ruptures and patching up cause the cholesterol deposits to block the blood vessels, leading to heart attacks.
In addition, rupturing of blood vessels produces internal blood clots, which again can block blood flow, causing heart attack and stroke.
Increasingly, the scientific community is beginning to acknowledge that chronic inflammation is the leading cause of heart disease, not cholesterol and saturated fats.
Besides sugar, other foods that cause chronic inflammation include:
- Polyunsaturated vegetable cooking oils, which turn rancid easily from exposure to heat, light and oxygen;
- Artificial trans fats formed during highly unnatural industrial processes to turn liquid vegetable oils into semi-solid margarine and vegetable shortening;
- Chemical food additives.
These are the very foods that doctors, nutritionists have been recommending for the past 50 years. They – and the government health authorities that take their advice – are ultimately the cause of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other modern ailments.
There are lots more problems with sugar, which is now also strongly linked to the development of cancer.But I will just touch on two more.
ADDICTION: Sugar promotes the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes you feel good. This is why people crave for sweet foods when they feel stressed or depressed. But the effect is short-lived. Once it wears out, you crave more sugar.
This makes sugar very highly addictive. Those who have tried to kick their sugar habits will know how hard it is. In fact, scientists like Dr Mark Hyman believe that sugar is even more addictive than hard drugs like cocaine.
MENTAL ILLNESS: In Sugar Blues, a book of investigative journalism on sugar, author William Dufty observes that the first mental institutions opened in Europe shortly after sugar became part of the regular diet.
Glucose from sugar (and rice and other carbohydrates) is food for the brain. Even though the brain is a relatively small organ, it uses up the bulk of the body’s glucose supply. Too much food can certainly make the brain unwell.
Excessive sugar intake is today known to cause a range of mental conditions, including depression and schizophrenia.
More alarmingly, studies since the 1980s by criminologists such as Alexander Schauss and Stephen Schoenthaler link sugar with anti-social and violent criminal behaviour. In experiments with prisoners, researchers have shown that removing sugar from the diet produced vast improvements in behaviour, including fewer fights, lesser use of vulgar language and fewer attempted escapes.
GLYCEMIC INDEX (GI): This is a measure of how quickly different carbohydrate foods cause a rise in the blood sugar level. Foods with a high GI are said to be “bad” for people with diabetes. And the government is using GI figures to “prove” that rice is worse than sugar.
The GI is a highly theoretical concept that has little practical purpose. Problems with the GI concept include:
- GI measures the effect of single foods like rice, sugar, etc. But we do not normally eat these foods on their own. Instead, we eat, for example, rice with fats, protein, spices, etc. When we eat rice with other dishes, the GI of the entire meal is very much lower than the GI of rice on its own.
- Some foods have very high GI but very little glucose anyway. A good example is watermelon, which is mainly water and contains very little glucose. So even though watermelon has a high GI, its impact on blood glucose is negligible. Because of this, scientists have developed an alternative measure called the Glycemic Load (GL). However, GL figures are not as widely available as GI figures.
- Inconsistency: Different GI tables give different values. For example, many GI tables put the GI of French baguette at about 97, which is very high. Yet some tables put the figure at less than 50, which is low.
- Illogical: Most GI tables say unpolished brown rice has a higher GI than white rice. The goes against common sense because rightly, the fibre in brown rice would slow down digestion and hence the rate of glucose absorption.
- Food quality – GI tables do not consider if a food is natural or artificial, healthy or “junk”. For example. Mars bar chocolate is listed as having moderate GI, lower than many natural foods like brown rice, wholemeal bread, and most starchy root vegetables. Does this mean that diabetics are better off eating Mars bars?
Beyond GI, we saw above that fructose produces more harmful effects on health – including causing diabetes – even though it does not enter the bloodstream. Sugar (fructose and glucose) has a moderate GI of 70, which is lower than that of rice, wholewheat bread, etc (glucose only). This does not mean that sugar is more suitable for diabetics.
NATURAL SWEETENERS: Artificial sweeteners like aspartame (in Coke Light) and sucralose (in Coke Zero) are many times more harmful than sugar, They destroy brain cells. They also increase your appetite so they do not help you lose weight. Avoid them.
One good form of sugar is palm sugar or gula melaka. It has a low glycemic index, meaning it will not cause your blood sugar level to rise quickly. It is also packed with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, unlike refined white sugar which has practically zero nutrition.
Another excellent sweetener is malt syrup, also known as rice malt, rice syrup, barley malt, etc. The Chinese call it 麦芽糖. This is maltose, which is made up of two glucose molecules. It does not come with the harmful effects of excessive fructose. But it is not as sweet as regular sugar. You can buy it at health stores but there is also a cheap version from China, you just have to look hard for it at regular supermarkets.
Forget about honey except maybe with lemon, or good vinegar as a home remedy for sore throat etc. Cheap honey may be adulterated with sugar. Expensive honey is not worth the money as whatever medicinal value it has is minimal.
There are some other natural sweeteners like Stevia, Buddha fruit, xylitol, etc. These have limited applications and some downsides. Eg stevia tends to leave an unpleasant after taste. But generally, they are safe if not taken excessively.
Ultimately, you will want to…
KICK THE SUGAR HABIT: The most effective way to kick the sugar habit is to go “cold turkey“. Stop all sugar completely.
Initially, you will feel miserable. All your foods will taste bland. BUT… in just two weeks, you will regain the sensitivity of your tastebuds. Then “bland” foods like white rice, unsweetened soy milk or Milo kosong (without added milk or sugar) will start to taste sweet.
As your tastebuds regain sensitivity, you will also discover new taste sensations. You will discover that food is not merely sweet, salty, spicy, etc, but they have subtle, complex flavours. You will enjoy your food more.
Just be careful of hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar when you go cold turkey. If you start to feel weak and extremely hungry, to the point of wanting to faint, take some sugar quickly.
It also helps to eat naturally sweet foods, such as root vegetables like carrot, onion, sweet potato, etc. When cooked slowly for a long time, they taste very sweet – without providing large amounts of fructose that will screw up your liver.
ONE FINAL DIFFERENCE: Rice and other grains have been eaten by humans as their main food for over 10,000 years.
Sugar was first produced a few thousand years ago in what is today Papua New Guinea. It spread to Southeast Asia and India and finally reached Europe only about 500 years ago. At that time, it was so expensive that only the rich could afford to take sugar – a few grains at a time.
It was only after the Industrial Revolution less than 300 years ago that sugar became more affordable and entered the mainstream diet. And only in the last 50 years or so that sugar consumption rose sharply.
So throughout most of human history, average sugar consumption was near zero. In modern societies today, sugar consumption is as high as 70 kg per person per year. This sharp rise in sugar consumption – along with a rise in the consumption of food chemicals and artificial foods – corresponds with the rise in modern degenerative diseases.
To say that rice is worse than sugar is simply ludicrous.