Understanding Sugars

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Many rodents are susceptible to type 2 diabetes, and care must be taken when designing their diets. In the gerbil world, it is the Fat Sand Rat that is very susceptible to this condition. However, occasionally Mongolian gerbils can suffer from this condition, but its occurrence is rare. A useful tool for testing for Diabetes is a glucose test strip, which can be bought over the counter from any chemists. Exercise is very beneficial for type 2 diabetics and exercise wheels help keep this condition very manageable. There has been a lot of research on exercise and diabetes management especially on the diabetes prone Sand rat, and it has been found that exercise is one of the most efficient ways of managing and preventing the condition.

Signs of diabetes 2 can be lethargy, increased water intake, and a sudden drop in weight.

When preparing diets a good understanding of sugars are needed. More often than not I have seen diets that are very bland and boring, and will do the animal no good in the long-term. Often its bland chinchilla or Degu pellets with little else added for the animal. Fruits are nearly always disregarded from the menu, along with other useful additions that will do no harm in small quantities.

Regarding fruit, with many species they don't really need fruit, and often it isn't available to them in a wild diet. However gerbils do eat small quantities of fruits, both in the wild and in captivity, and benefit from their intake. Always bear in mind what they would have access to in the wild, which often would be quite meagre. So things like fruit/ veg etc should always be given as a treat on an infrequent basis. So just an occasional slice of carrot or apple will keep them very happy.

Apples or fruit will do no more or less harm than giving them something like wholemeal bread, which contains complex sugars. Even vegetables contain sugars too! You can't escape sugar no matter what diet you are on!

Sugars explained

The term carbohydrate includes monosaccharides and disaccharides, which are sometimes called simple sugars. Polysaccharides are sometimes called complex carbohydrates or starch, and fibre.

The term monosaccharide literally means one sugar molecule.

Foods contain three common monosaccharides:

Glucose, Fructose and Galactose

The term disaccharide means two sugar molecules.

Two monosaccharides combine to form a disaccharide. Three important disaccharides are:

  • Maltose = Glucose + Glucose
  • Sucrose = Glucose + Fructose
  • Lactose = Glucose + Galactose

The term polysaccharide means many sugar molecules.

Polysaccharides contain hundreds of sugar molecules and include:

  • Complex carbohydrates or starch and fibre

Simple sugars and complex carbohydrates or starches occur naturally in many foods that also supply other nutrients, including milk, fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals, and grains. Sugars are also added to foods during processing and preparation. Most sugars found naturally in foods, or added to foods are disaccharides, or two sugar molecules. The body cannot tell the difference between naturally occurring and added sugars because they are chemically the same.

Our bodies can only absorb monosaccharides, or single sugar molecules. During digestion enzymes break down disaccharides into two monosaccharides, which can be absorbed by the body. Digestive enzymes also break down complex carbohydrates or starches, which contain hundreds of sugar molecules, into monosaccharides or single sugar molecules for absorption. The body cannot tell the difference between monosaccharides that come from the breakdown of a simple sugar or from a complex carbohydrate. The main function of sugars (and all carbohydrates) in the body is to provide energy.

So in excess, sugar can contribute to nutritional deficiencies by supplying calories without providing nutrients. Things like cakes, sweets, and soft drinks provide calories with few nutrients. Products like Honey do provide a few vitamins and minerals, but the amounts are very small. On the other hand, grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy foods contain natural sugars and starches, but also protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Sugar can contribute to nutrient deficiencies only by displacing other nutrients. So the attitude to take with diabetes susceptible rodents is not that sugars are 'bad' and must be avoided, but that nutrient 'dense' foods must come first. The goal is good nutrition, moderation and plenty of exercise.

Article by Eddie Cope

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