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!