The Honey Diet
There are a number of new diet books out this New Year, as would be expected. The Honey Diet has already been the subject of a feature in the Daily Mail.
I was particularly curious about this one, as I’m often asked “Can I have honey?” and my reply is “No – it’s just sugar!”
The best starting point to get the nutritional facts about honey is the global ‘bible’ of food information – the United States Department of Agriculture database, available on nutritiondata.com. Honey can be found here – in the “sweets” section! Bit of a clue for starters.
Per 100g, honey has 304 calories. It is 82% carbohydrate and 18% water. All the carbohydrate is sugar. It differs from table sugar (sucrose) in the following ways:
i) Table sugar is 100% carbohydrate/sugar; honey is 82% carbohydrate/sugar.
Table sugar (sucrose) has no water content. If it did it would be sticky – like honey. Honey is slightly lower in carbohydrate than sucrose, simply because it has a water content – and that’s also why it’s sticky.
ii) Table sugar is 100% empty calories; honey is virtually all empty calories.
If you look at the nutrition data information for honey for yourself, you can see that 100 grams of honey has no essential fats, no protein, traces of a couple of vitamins and traces of a few minerals. The highest contribution honey makes to any one nutrient requirement is that 100 grams of honey provides 0.1mg of manganese. You would need to consume 2.3 kilograms of honey daily, at a calorie intake of almost 7,000, to get this one nutrient from honey. Or, you could have 60 grams of cocoa powder, at 137 calories, in the delicious form of very high cocoa content chocolate and get your daily requirement of manganese in one hit.
iii) Table sugar is 100% sucrose = 50% glucose/50% fructose; honey is virtually the same = 46% glucose/50.5% fructose/3.5% galactose .
Sucrose is a disaccharide (two sugars). It is made up of glucose and fructose in equal measures. Hence table sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. The USDA database tells us that honey is 1% sucrose, 43.5% glucose, 50% fructose, 1.75% maltose and 3.75% galactose. Maltose is also a disaccharide – providing two molecules of glucose and we know that sucrose is a disaccharide providing one molecule of glucose and one of fructose. Hence, if we break honey down into the monosaccharides (single sugars), the maltose gets added to the glucose line, as does half the sucrose and we end up with the simple sugar composition of honey being 45.75% glucose (say 46%), 50.5% fructose and 3.75% galactose.
Honey is thus a cross between table sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) in terms of its sugar composition.
You can see that the differences between sucrose and honey are small and not necessarily good ones. There is nothing good about honey from a nutritional point of view.
The claims about honey in the article
1) “Honey’s unique combination of natural sugars make it a near-perfect weight loss food.”
As John McEnroe famously said “You cannot be serious!” You have seen in the sugar composition of honey that it is somewhere between the 50/50 glucose/fructose ratio of table sugar and the 45/55 glucose/fructose ratio of HFCS. It is sugar and nothing but sugar. There is nothing beneficial to weight loss about sugar. Sugar is the single substance best avoided by anyone wanting to lose weight.
2) “By substituting sugar for honey throughout the day and taking a large spoonful of honey in a hot drink before going to bed, the mechanisms in the brain that spark ruinous sugar cravings can be shut down altogether.”
I don’t see how. If you substitute one nutritionally pointless sugar for another nutritionally pointless sugar throughout the day, you are still consuming unnecessary nutritionally pointless sugar throughout the day. If you crave sugar, consuming sugar feeds those sugar cravings – it does not make them go away. Would you try to kid an alcoholic that consuming one alcohol instead of another would make alcohol cravings go away? Or a smoker that one brand of cigarettes instead of another would stop them craving cigarettes? This really is disingenuous.
The average human body, with an average five litres of blood, needs 0.8-1.1 grams of glucose per litre of blood = 4-5.5 grams of glucose per person at any one time. One tablespoon (let alone a large one) of honey has 17 grams of sugar. We know that 46% of this is, or breaks down into, glucose – that’s almost 8 grams. That’s twice what the blood stream needs in total at any one time.
If you were in a state of stable blood glucose before going to bed – a tablespoon of honey will whack you out of stability and force the body to release insulin to get you back into the normal blood glucose range. Do this too often and don’t be surprised when you develop type 2 diabetes. If you had high blood glucose anyway before bed – a spoon of honey will make it even worse. Even if you had slightly low blood glucose, you do not want anything to shoot your glucose levels over the top and out of the normal range. You should just go to bed and your body will break down triglyceride (body fat) while you sleep to keep your blood glucose stable throughout the night.
You lose weight while you sleep by going to bed without having chucked sugar into your mouth last thing at night – not by having done so.
The fructose part of honey, by the way, doesn’t go into the blood stream – it goes straight to the liver where the liver turns it to fat.
3) “The hundreds of micro-nutrients in every teaspoon of honey change the way the substance reacts in our digestive system.”
This statement fails in the first few words. First of all there are not even hundreds of micro-nutrients. Micro-nutrients are otherwise known as vitamins and minerals. There are precisely 13 vitamins and there is some debate as to the number of minerals that are relevant to include, but a number of 16 would be accepted by most people. That’s not even 30 micro-nutrients to assess.
Then – you’ve seen the nutritional content of honey in the opening section – and that was for 100 grams. Look back at the nutrition database for yourself and use the drop down menu at the top to change the quantity to either 1 tablespoon (21 grams) or 1 packet (14 grams). One teaspoon is not even 7 grams, so either divide the tablespoon values by 3 or the packet values by 2 and the nutritional value of a teaspoon of honey is even less than either of these. You will see that even the traces of vitamins and minerals have now disappeared to register zero contributions of virtually every micro-nutrient.
4) “In fact, tests conducted by medical research laboratories in Dubai show a spoonful of honey appears to lower blood-sugar levels rather than raise them as a spoonful of white sugar would.” (The article’s emphasis, not mine).
This is not true – not as the first response anyway. This article appears to be the one in question – a Dubai study assessing the impact of honey on blood glucose levels. It was interesting to search for articles about honey. The author, Al-Waili, comes up again and again. He is Mr Honey. Pubmed alone has 30 articles under his name extolling the virtues of honey. He declares no conflicts of interest, but he will certainly be popular with the honey producers, even if they aren’t funding him.
Al-Waili’s areas of research involving honey are very varied – from the topical application of honey vs. acyclovir for the treatment of herpes to the prophylactic effects of crude honey on chronic seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff! Most of Al-Waili’s studies review the value of applying honey as an ‘ointment’ to different parts of the body and there may be value in honey for such purposes. I don’t know and it’s not my area of interest. I’m interested in food, health and weight and I can’t see a value for honey in this arena.
Back to the Dubai study allegedly showing that honey lowers blood-sugar levels: You only need to read the abstract to see that a number of experiments were undertaken in this study, but the one we need to look at is the first – Dextrose solution was compared with honey solution to assess the impact on plasma (blood) glucose levels (PGL) in eight people.
The dextrose solution contained 75 grams of dextrose in 250mL water and the honey solution contained 75 grams honey in 250mL of water. The result was that “In healthy subjects, dextrose elevated PGL at 1 (53%) and 2 (3%) hours, and decreased PGL after 3 hours (20%). Honey elevated PGL after 1 hour (14%) and decreased it after 3 hours (10%).”
So, honey did not lower blood glucose levels. Honey raised blood glucose levels at the one hour marker and then lowered them after three hours. This is a normal response to putting too much glucose into the blood stream. Blood glucose levels rise and then insulin is released; the excess glucose is converted to glycogen and blood glucose levels fall.
We don’t know from the abstract if blood glucose levels stayed within the normal range, or fell below the normal range. I interpret the expression “decreased PGL after three hours” as the blood glucose level ended up lower than it was before the consumption of the dextrose/honey solution. This would generate a classic hypoglycaemic response and a lower than normal blood glucose level would lead to the person seeking glucose and thus having cravings for more sugary food. This is the reason why I advise people never to start on the sugar ingestion roller coaster – or you will be on it, incessantly craving sweet things, for the rest of the day.
The other important factor to highlight in this study is that honey was not being compared with white sugar (what people would assume to be table sugar). Honey was being compared with dextrose. Dextrose is pure glucose (some athletes consume dextrose tablets to get a quick shot of glucose into their blood stream). Hence this experiment compared 75 grams of glucose in water with 28 grams of glucose in water (that’s the amount of glucose in 75 grams of honey). Is it any surprise that putting more than twice the glucose into the blood stream has more impact on blood glucose levels? Had this experiment compared dextrose with table sugar, table sugar would have produced less of a response than dextrose, since table sugar has half the glucose of dextrose. This is also disingenuous.
The diet rules
These are only nine rules in the article, and the wording and order differs to the book, so here are the rules taken from the book:
1) Rule Number 1: Switch sugar for honey;
2) Rule Number 2: Have a honey drink every night before bed (1-2 tablespoons only – we are reminded that there are 64 calories in a tablespoon, which can mount up!) ;
3) Rule Number 3: No more junk food;
4) Rule Number 4: Enjoy a good breakfast;
5) Rule Number 5: Enjoy unlimited salads and vegetables;
6) Rule Number 6: Full-fat dairy products are OK;
7) Rule Number 7: Drink lots of water;
8) Rule Number 8: One no-carb day each week (the menus for the no-carb day list tomatoes, apple, mushrooms, unlimited salad & vegetables, beans, avocado, yoghurt and cheese, so this should be a no grains day?);
9) Rule Number 9: Switch to brown carbohydrates (and not too many);
10) Rule Number 10: Include protein in every meal or snack;
11) Rule Number 11: No more than two pieces of fruit (not juice) per day.
Only two of these rules are needed – (Rule 3) Don’t eat junk food and (Rule 9) limit even your unrefined carb intake and that’s it. Rules 8 and 11 are also intended to curtail carb intake – because this is a low carb diet at the end of the day. Rule 10 is pointless – protein is in everything (except oils and sucrose). So, unless you plan to sit down to a meal of olive oil, or honey!, you will consume protein.
It is interesting to note that the first chapter in the book – “The key to weight loss” – has a number of references listed at the back, but none of them are about honey. They are about errors we have made in dietary advice – fat is not the enemy, carbohydrates are etc – the kind of stuff I write and talk about on an hourly basis. All good stuff, but naff all to do with honey. Chapter 2, all about the benefits of honey for sleep, similarly has an impressive number of references – about sleep and obesity generally. I couldn’t see honey in a single title listed. Chapter 3 gets into more general benefits claimed for honey – and there may be some – but this is billed as a weight loss diet and honey is not featuring in the rationale for weight loss – the efficacy of low carbohydrate intake is, however.
There is a 7-day plan presented in the article and you will be able to see immediately why this plan would help weight loss – and it has nothing whatsoever to do with honey. It’s a plan largely based on real food and low carbohydrate intake – rules (3) and (9).
Monday has bacon, one tomato, a handful of olives, a three-egg omelette, celery sticks with cream cheese, salmon and steamed broccoli and plain yoghurt with honey. Monday is described as the “no carb” day. Honey is pure carb; salads and vegetables are carbs and dairy foods have a carb content, so we’ll assume that the author, Mike McInnes, means “no grains” day and has ignored the honey.
You can see the rest of the meal options in the article – they are based on real food and low carbohydrate. In fact the only rubbish in there is honey! Every day has to feature honey (or it wouldn’t be the honey diet). Monday, Tuesday and Thursday have honey in yoghurt – far better to leave the honey out and just have natural live (bio) yoghurt. Wednesday has honey cake. On Friday you are supposed to make 12-15 apple and walnut cookies (with honey of course) and eat only one (see the recipes). On Saturday you are supposed to make 12 honey banana muffins and, again, eat only one. On Sunday, it’s rhubarb and banana crumble – with 2 tablespoons of honey slipped in.
The rest of the foods listed are healthy – eggs, chicken (but ignore the advice to remove the skin – that’s where the nutrients are), tuna salad, pork casserole, frittata, steak, salads and vegetables etc. Eggs feature heavily in the diet and the meals are real food/low carb. It really is only the honey and the cakes/muffins etc, which have been concocted to include honey, providing empty calories in this diet.
This diet should ditch the honey completely and therefore dump its first rule. However, if you ditched the honey, this wouldn’t be The Honey Diet. It would be just another low carb diet!