So how hung up on sugar should we be?

No-one can escape the merry-go-round of articles and programmes about sugar at the moment. From the headlines in the Daily Mail last week of  ‘Sugar is the New Tobacco’ to Dispatches on Channel 4 just last night questioning the science behind sugar and health.

We used to be told to worry about our fat intake, now sugar is the new concern….or is it?

Here at Nutracheck we’re all about moderation and eating a healthy balanced diet. We are independent of the food industry and aim to base our views on the scientific evidence.  So we thought it would be good to have a look at what’s going on with sugar, and whether we really all need to get hung up on it?

Is sugar the new tobacco?

In simple terms, the answer is there is no compelling evidence to suggest that any food is addictive, and this is also true for sugar. In the Dispatches programme, we were shown how the brain reacts to a sweet drink or food – the reward centres in our brains show activity. Basically our brains are telling us that it likes what we’ve just eaten, but as the scientist said this isn’t the same as the brain’s response to an addictive substance like cocaine. We really just don’t know what makes sugar so appealing but it’s unlikely to be the same process as true addiction

Sugar is something that we need in our bodies – it’s the only substance that our brain can use for energy. So without it, our brains can’t function properly, we can lose concentration, and in the longer term there can be serious health implications. Of course, we breakdown all carbohydrates to simple sugars so having more complex carbohydrates such as wholemeal pasta, bread or rice will still mean we get sugar (glucose) to our brains eventually. Sugar (in its white form) is more readily digested and available to the body to use for energy so having more complex carbs can mean a more steady supply of sugar into the bloodstream, a more constant blood sugar and potentially less feelings of hunger.

What about sugar and health?

What about type 2 diabetes? Does sugar cause diabetes? Again there is little evidence to prove a direct link between sugar intake and diabetes. Yes , there is certainly a link between diet and diabetes but evidence shows that this is down to overweight and obesity (so the overall energy balance and quality of the diet) rather than down to sugar intake alone.  Professor Philip James, an advisor to the World Health Organisation, stated in the Dispatches programme that we know sugar is linked to obesity, but we don’t know if there is any direct link to diabetes.

Fat remains a culprit in the obesity epidemic because it is the most energy dense nutrient – there is no getting away from the fact that each gram of fat gives us 9 calories, and each gram of sugar gives us 4 calories. So the law of averages means that fat will be contributing more to excessive calorie intake, than sugar (obviously depending on the foods that you eat).

Are we going to have a sugar tax?

It is true that fizzy drinks do contribute one of the biggest sources of sugar in our diet. There’s a strong lobby movement in the UK for the government to add a tax onto sugared fizzy drinks – with the idea that any taxation proceeds will help to fund healthcare and research into diabetes – however this isn’t something that will happen overnight. Many groups believe that there isn’t enough good quality evidence yet to support such a tax, so it’s a case of ‘watch this space’ to see what the next few years bring.

So where does that leave us?

The issue with sugar is that it tends to be in foods that it’s all too easy to over consume. Consuming too much leads to obesity – and we are all well aware of the associated health issues. So we do not deny that cutting down on sugar is a good idea.  But it all depends on your dietary starting point. 

If you’re someone who drinks full sugar fizzy drinks, or eats loads of sweets every day, then it would be a good idea cut back. However, if you are eating healthy a diet, then enjoying a sweet treat every so often, is fine.

If you are trying to lose weight, then eating a lower calorie, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg, more complex carbohydrates and lean protein will mean you’ll be taking care of your sugar intake without really trying – as Rachel said in her last blog. There is no need to get hung up measuring the precise number of grams of sugar consumed if you are getting the right balance of foods overall in your diet. And as weight loss is fundamentally down to the law of thermodynamics – energy consumed must be less than energy burned, regardless of what you eat, you will lose weight.

In summary, the sugar debate is unlikely to go away, so it is important to keep the bigger picture in view.  Many of the high calorie foods we love, and that are very easy to eat too much of, contain sugar. Cutting back on high calorie foods, in general, is a good call to help support your weight loss goals – but it’s also important to keep everything in perspective! Remember moderation in all things – including moderation itself!

9 Comments

  • Val Langthorne says:

    Common sense and everything in portion control and we have nothing to worry about …. but that is only my opinion

  • Mary McDonald says:

    I would be interested on the nutitionist’s view on artificial sweeteners. I don’t drink any fizzy drinks with sugar, but I drink plenty that have neglible calories because they use artificial sweeteners, and I have done for many years with no apparent ill effects. Some people seem to be have strong opinions on them, but I haven’t seen any evidence that they are harmful.

    • Janet Aylott says:

      Hi Mary – thanks for your comments. There is a lot of discussion about artificial sweeteners, and this has been ongoing for many years. Current scientific understanding is that artificial sweeteners are safe, and this was confirmed in a major review of all the science carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) late in 2013. This concluded that based on all the available evidence, there was no link between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and any health conditions. In contrast, consuming too many calories and being overweight has been linked with the development of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and others so reducing calorie intake by swapping full sugar for diet drinks is surely a positive step.

  • Karen Richards says:

    I’m so glad you have written this. I have just lost 1st 6lbs using nutrackeck and it is the best diet/food diary I have tried. I am just 3lbs from target now and am convinced that balance is the key to sustainable weight loss. Cutting out foods all together might work for a little while but in the long term we need to find a way to live in the ‘real world’. That said, I’ve moved towards lots of fresh, organic produce in my cooking and have very little in the way of sugar but that weekend treat of two chocolates, left over from Christmas, was delicious and now I’m set for my walk :-)

    • Janet Aylott says:

      Thanks Karen – we completely agree. It’s great to hear that you are close to your target. Balance is key, and including the occasional treat will just help you to stick to your goal, and make it more enjoyable on the way! Best of luck and let us know when you reach your target!

  • Graham says:

    Perhaps it’s not just about thermodynamics!

    Are we absolutely sure that biological processes behave in a ‘thermodynamic’ way.

    Maybe biological processes behave in some way as yet not understood by researchers.

    The thermodynamic model seems to simple to model the human body.

    Also I get enough sugar in food without corporations adding obscene amounts of the stuff to make their products addictively palatable.

    • Janet Aylott says:

      Thanks Graham – you are absolutely right. It’s very possible that there may be more to it, but for now we base our understanding on what is known. The advances in food labelling means that consumers have a choice to make about the products they buy – sugar contents are clearly shown on the label of most pre-packed foods so if you’d prefer to avoid them, other options are available. At Nutracheck, we believe that calorie reduction, whilst following a healthy and balanced diet, will result in weight loss.

  • Jane says:

    No mention of the disastrous effect on dental health I note. My daughter left home with perfect teeth, two years of drinking university tea with 3 sugars and she has had to have extensive dental work under sedation, sugar is terrible stuff!

    • Janet Aylott says:

      You are quite right – there is a link between the frequency of sugar consumption and poor dental health (I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s position). The reason that dental health wasn’t mentioned in my blog was that this isn’t the focus of current attention on sugar in the media, however the same advice fits for dental health: that is to follow a good, balanced diet and consume sugar (and everything else) in moderation.

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