As happened in most Irish childhoods, Erika Doolan enjoyed her fair share of sweet treats. “We’d sneak chocolate and sugary bars, though my mum gave us Tracker bars instead of chocolate, which were a good idea on her part but still full of sugar,” she says. “When I got older however, I began to suffer from skin pigmentation.”
Erika — a nutritionist for Nutriclub (www.nutriclub.ie) and consultant for Dublin restaurant Rustic Stone — decided to cut out sugar from her diet. Almost immediately, she began to notice the effects.
“Once I gave up sugar and alcohol, you could completely see the difference in my face,” she notes. “I don’t tend to use expensive creams, so it really is down to what I’m eating … or rather, not eating.”
Much as we’re aware that sweet treats add inches to the waistline, new research has proven that when it comes to rolling back the years, sugar is enemy number one. Forget ‘a moment on the lips, forever on the hips’ … now it’s more likely to be ‘forever on the eyelids’.
Those who drop sugar from their diet have spoken of renewed radiance and elasticity in their face. What’s more, experts contend that no pricey miracle cream can come close. But how can something sweet be so dastardly for our complexion?
A new study has shown a link between the sugar in our blood and ageing. Scientists from the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, and Unilever in the UK, measured the blood-sugar levels of 600 men and women aged between 50 and 70. They then showed photographs of these people to a board of 60 people and found that those with higher blood sugar looked older than those with lower blood sugar. In fact, for every 1mm/litre increase in blood sugar, the perceived age of that person rose by five months.
In the short term, sugar in the blood causes subtle inflammation of the skin, showing up as puffiness and fine lines. A process called ‘glycation’ happens, where sugar attaches itself to proteins in the body, and this reduces elastin and collagen levels, both of which give skin their youthful appearance.
Normally, skin starts to lose its youthful appearance at 35, and things go downhill rapidly after that. Add a load of fizzy drinks, biscuits and cakes into the mix, and it can be quite the bitter pill to swallow. “Studies suggest that when you eat a lot of sugar, it increases the body’s inflammatory status,” says Dan McCarthy of Indi (www.indi.ie) and the DIT’s School of Biological Sciences.
“Immune (white) cells are activated in the body, and even though they are effective in ridding bacteria and infections, they can damage our own healthy tissue by producing free radicals.
Plus, when you eat lots of sugary food, chances are you’re not eating enough fruit and vegetables, so you leave out many important nutrients like vitamin C, A or beta carotene, all of which promote collagen and elastin production in the skin.”
Adds Erika: “Sugar increases bacteria in the system and causes kidney damage, which impacts on the appearance.”
If your childhood was marked with Wham bars and Sherbet Dips, chances are you might have something of a sweet tooth nowadays.
“People who were exposed to large intakes of sugar early on in life are susceptible to a high sugar diet,” observes Dan. “There is a theory that these people retain this behaviour into adult life. Also, people who are susceptible to comfort eating or are suffering from depression are also likely to have this diet, as are busy or stressed people.”
But how easy is it to cut sugar from your diet? Alas, it’s not quite as simple as avoiding the fun-pack aisle in Tesco. Perhaps not surprisingly, people become addicted to the ‘high’ of a sugar rush, often lurching from one sugary high to the next (with plenty of blood sugar crashes in between). “People reckon that taking in sugar equals a certain amount of calories, but what’s important is the speed with which we absorb sugar,” explains Dan. “People neglect the metabolic effect. When high amounts of sugar are eaten, insulin production spikes in the body, and unfortunately that results in fat being deposited around the tummy.
“There has been a lot of discussion about the addictiveness of sugar, and it has been proven that sugar consumption induces changes in brain biochemistry, and you become de-sensitised to dopamine (a feel-good chemical in the brain),” adds Dan. “The more sugar you eat, the less dopamine there is in the brain and the less feel-good sensations you feel.”
Of course, the path of least resistance might seem like a perfectly reasonable option; swapping sugar for sweeteners. It’s a false economy, according to Dan.
“It has been established that those who drink diet fizzy drinks gain more weight, despite the fact that they have virtually no calories,” he reveals. “These drinks habituate people to seek out sweet foods.”
Others make the mistake of swapping fizzy drinks for ‘healthier’ fruit juices:
“That can certainly be an issue, too,” advises Dan. “There are about 10mg of sugar in 100ml of fruit juice. The best thing to do is to take juice with food, as what’s missing in fruit juices is the fibrous matter of fruit, and that slows the absorption of sugar in the gut.”
Instead, stick to lower GI options such as brown rice, pasta and bread. The aim should be to ensure that sugar makes up less than 10pc of your total diet.
“It’s best to cut down gradually,” notes Dan. “Radical changes are just not sustainable, and it’s a little like falling off a cliff in physiological terms. Fruit is an ideal substitute because the sugar from fruit is more slowly absorbed into the system. It’s certainly a step in the right direction for anyone with sugar cravings.”
When making the transition to a sugar-free regime, Erika swotted up on the healthier alternatives to sugar and sweeteners.
“Xylitol is a nutritional sweetener that is quite good for you and doesn’t cause the insulin spikes,” she reveals. “Better still, it doesn’t cause ageing. Agave syrup is a good alternative to sugar, too, as is stevia, which is a natural sweetener. There are lots of simple ways of overcoming a sugar addiction. Even small things like putting cinnamon on your porridge is a good start, because you tackle the sweet cravings.
“A diet with lots of protein and good fats helps when you crave sugar,” she continues. “Plus, if you don’t eat enough protein, you age quicker because cellular renewal is disrupted. Fish oils regulate insulin production and are good for your skin and for depression as a bonus.”
The good news is if you change your ways and cut down on sugar, you should quickly feel — and see — the myriad benefits.
Your skin will start to feel more supple within days, for a start. And, given that a low-sugar diet also reduces risk of various cancers and diabetes, what could be sweeter than a healthy new lease of life?