Firstly, it is very important to distinguish between the different types of sugars we have in our diet. These sugars are usually divided into two main categories: “added sugar”, which are those added to food such as sucrose (table sugar) or high fructose corn syrup, which are also known as the bad sugars. The other type of sugar is “natural sugar” that occurs naturally in foods like lactose in dairy, and fructose and glucose in fruits and vegetables. These are healthy foods that contain water, fibre and various micronutrients. These naturally occurring sugars are fine when consumed in moderation.
It is also important to understand that sugars are carbohydrates and like all carbohydrates, they play a vital role in making sure you have energy to perform daily tasks, to exercise and to carry out the most basic functions of your body, including brain activity. Choosing the right type and if used properly — and in moderation — sugar provides the primary source of energy your body uses for fuel, known as glucose. It is this glucose that allows your muscles and brain to function optimally, whether you are an athlete or an office worker.
Why are we constantly told sugar is bad for us? What makes it so bad?
Added sugar is considered the single worst ingredient in the modern diet and the main reason why it receives such negative criticism is due to its lack of nutritive value and its potential to damage your metabolism in the long-term. In addition to this, there are many other reasons as to we should be avoiding added sugar, which include:
- Added sugar contains large amounts of fructose in which only the liver can metabolise. When too much fructose enters the liver and it is already full of glycogen (stored sugar for fuel), most of the fructose gets turned into fat.
- Sugar is considered to be “empty calories” as it doesn’t contain and vitamins or minerals. Therefore, high consumption can lead to weight gain, obesity and weight-related health conditions.
- High sugar loading in the liver can elevate your cholesterol and triglycerides and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
- High sugar intake can cause tooth decay by increasing dental plaque, which breaks down the enamel.
- High sugar can lead to nutrient deficiencies because it can leach out vitamins and minerals from the body reducing their absorption.
- Sugar is addictive due to the release of the hormone dopamine after consumption. In certain individuals with a predisposition to addiction, this causes reward-seeking behaviour similar to that of drug use.
Are sugar alternatives as bad for us as sugar?
The jury is still out on this one. There are many different substitutes for sugar. The main one is “artificial sweeteners”, which are synthetic sugar substitutes, but may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. These are substances that can stimulate the sweet taste receptors on the tongue mimicking and tricking the brain into thinking it is sugar.
Artificial sweeteners usually contain no calories and they don’t have harmful metabolic effects on the body like sugar does, which has led to the wide use of these chemicals in many “diet” and “reduced fat” foods and beverages. Despite the increased use of these sweeteners, it is evident that the obesity epidemic still exists and if anything, on the rise. Some researchers have found that artificial sweeteners do not satisfy our biological cravings for sugar in the same way that sugar itself does, and could therefore lead to an increase in food consumption. Since these sweeteners can be up to 200 times sweeter than sugar, some researchers believe that the strong sweetness may cause us to become dependent on sweet flavours, which could increase our desire for sweet foods in general.
Bottom line: Replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners may be helpful for those trying to reduce body weight, but only slightly at best. Regarding the decision about using them, that must come down to the individual.
Is cutting out a food ‘group/ingredient’ bad for us?.
Cutting out a whole food group is very different to cutting out one ingredient. By eliminating a food group without the advice of a health professional, you place yourself at risk on malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies. This of course depends on the type of food you choose to eliminate and the duration you cut it out for. By eliminating any food group, you may be depriving your body of vital nutrients and energy it requires for optimal health. Nutrient deficiencies lead to a host of all kinds of negative health conditions. Some that present with symptoms that are obvious and some that are not so obvious but can impair your health in the long-term.
Why shouldn’t we quit sugar (controversial)?
Some reasons why we shouldn’t quit sugar are as follows:
- It’s unrealistic – Some people have great success for quitting sugar for extended periods of time. It works for some but not for many. The pressures of eliminating something to achieve a health goal can be crippling, and if you are unsuccessful in achieving this goal, it can have many psychological ramifications such as a sense of failure. Plus, are you really never going to eat sugar again? Hello, birthday cake?
- Good source of energy – the right type of carbohydrates as mentioned above, when consumed correctly, can have great health benefits to the body, particularly with energy and brain function. Athletes are just one population group who may rely heavily on fueling their body with carbohydrates to improve their performance.
- Sugar isn’t the only reason why you are unhealthy – If you’re trying to eliminate sugar in order to start a health kick, it will certainly provide health benefits, but is it the sole reason your health has suffered? It is important to look at your diet as a whole and to stop vilifying a single ingredient and treating it like it is solely responsible for your ill health.
- Ripe, seasonal fruits (which contain natural sugars) are some of the most nutrient-dense and antioxidant-rich foods you can consume. By eliminating all fruits, you place yourself at risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.