Understanding the role of sugar and the prevention of Diabetes

Understanding the role of sugar and the prevention of Diabetes

Let’s take a look at various forms of sugar, how they show up in food naturally, some natural alternatives and hidden sugars you would not often associate with certain foods. Lastly, find out to what detriment these ‘sugars’ are to our overall health and well-being, and in particular, to the prevention of diabetes?

If I asked you to think of sugar, what can you see or what do you imagine? Maybe a sugar lump in your tea or coffee? A sprinkle over your cereal? Perhaps in a chocolate bar? Yes, you would be right. However, what if I were to tell you that one of the top sugar containing foods is a baked potato? Would you believe me? Most of my clients can’t believe it… and that’s before you even add any toppings!

When I ask my clients if they have a lot of sugar in their diet, many say they don’t. For those who do have a sweet tooth, I ask them what they enjoy to eat that contains various sugars. A lot of people say sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks – all the classics.


Natural sugars – potatoes

I want to start by illustrating that ‘sugar’ does not always translate into something ‘sweet’. Sugar in food can occur naturally. The example I used of the baked potato is a good place to start this explanation.

Baked potatoes are a great source of fibre, Vitamin B6 and C as well as potassium and yes, they are healthier than many other foods out there on the market. However, as it is heated at such a high temperature, (usually 180c), the carbohydrate in the potato converts into sugar. That’s why they taste so good… although we often consider it a ‘healthy carb’. They don’t taste sweet, but they nevertheless spike our insulin levels, i.e blood sugar.

What is healthier for you?… french fries/ chips or baked potato? Most would answer: baked potato. Chips may be higher in saturated fat, but they have a lower glycaemic index level, meaning they have lower sugar conversion than a baked potato. So I suppose it depends on who is asking – some one who is watching their fat intake or someone trying to balance their blood sugar levels, or both!

When you’re monitoring your blood sugar levels closely, carbs will matter and contribute to your outcome. Your digestive system/ tract breaks down carbohydrates into sugars. That sugar goes into your blood stream and makes blood sugar levels rise.

Potatoes make up 30% of the vegetables the average U.S. adult eats in a year. They’re also full of starch, which is a carbohydrate. Even though a potato is considered a complex “healthy” carb, your body digests these carbs faster than other kinds of complex carbs, due partially to their high starch levels. These broken-down carbs flood your blood with sugar. This makes your blood sugar spike quickly.


The glycaemic index scale

To understand how a complex carbohydrate-rich food, like a potato, acts in your body, you need to know its Glycaemic Index (GI).

The glycaemic index is a scale that ranks carbohydrates from 0 to 100. The higher a food’s number, the faster it raises and spikes your blood sugar level. Low GI foods release sugar slowly into your body, giving it more time to store or use it, and as a result it helps to stabilise your blood sugar levels. Your body digests foods that rate high on the scale faster than low ones. For example,

  • High GI foods rate 70-100.
  • Medium GI foods rate 55-69.
  • Low GI foods are 55 or below.

Potatoes fall in the high GI category. A cup of them can affect your blood sugar in the same way a can of fizzy drink would, which many people find hard to believe. One study found that women who ate a large amount of potatoes raised their risk of developing diabetes. Replacing them with whole grains, such as brown basmati rice could help to mitigate this risk. Brown rice is still a complex carb, but less starchy.

The preparation of a potato is also important and will determine its GI index nature/ level. Some examples include:

  • Baked potato: 111
  • Boiled potato: 82
  • Instant mashed potatoes: 87
  • French fries 73

Another trick is to use stevia instead of sugar as it has a GI index of 0, which means it won’t interfere with blood sugar level stability.

I could use many more examples to explain the same principle, however you get the idea.  To help stabilise blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of developing diabetes, consume more low- medium GI foods, and lessen your intake of the high GI foods, as a rule, to help pave the way to the prevention of diabetes.






Sal Hanvey

Sal Hanvey

About Sal Hanvey

Sal Hanvey is an award winning Nutrition Consultant. She has a real passion for finding ingredient substitutes and alternatives for those people with food intolerances, or allergies, without compromising on nutritional value or taste.

Sal writes for various publications around the subjects of nutrition and well-being. Sal offers ‘Stir Crazy’ cook-a-long classes online to help people to connect, or re-connect to the universal language that we all know and love- to enjoy good food. The classes are interactive, live and very much nutrition led.


Change your mind logo

This series of #FoodFriday is kindly supported by Inspire Wellbeing and the Change Your Mind programme. Change Your Mind It is a joint programme run by Inspire and the Public Health Agency. It is Northern Ireland’s regional campaign to tackle stigma and discrimination around mental health. They are funded by Comic Relief and work in partnership with a range of organisations and community networks across Northern Ireland.

They are a grassroots campaign shaped by the collaboration of communities, organisations and individuals who are championing the message against mental health stigma across society – a campaign for people, driven by people. Read more here.