Sugar seems to have developed a reputation as the big bad wolf in relation to health. We have reported on numerous studies associating sugar intake with increased ageing, cardiovascular disease, obesity and even cancer. Such research has led to many health experts around the globe calling for reductions in recommended sugar intake, with some saying we should cut out sugar completely. But is it really that bad for our health?
“sugar is a crystalline carbohydrate that makes foods taste sweet”
There are many different types, including glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose and sucrose. Some of these sugars, such as glucose, fructose and lactose, occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and other foods. But many of the foods we consume contain “added” sugars – sugar that we add to a product ourselves to enhance the flavour or sugar that has been added to a product by a manufacturer.
The most common sources of added sugars include soft drinks, cakes, pies, chocolate, fruit drinks and desserts. Just a single can of cola can contain up to 7 tsps of added sugar, while an average-sized chocolate bar can contain up to 6 tsps.
It is added sugars that have been cited as a contributor to many health problems. In December 2014, MNT reported on a study in the journal Open Heart claiming added sugars may increase the risk of high blood pressure, even more so than sodium. And in February 2014, a study led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) associated high added sugar intake with increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease (CVD).
“Perhaps most strongly, added sugars have been associated with the significant increase in obesity”
In the US, more than a third of adults are obese, while the rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years.
A 2013 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages increases weight gain in both children and adults, while a review paper from the World Health Organization (WHO) notes an increase in the consumption of such beverages correlates with the increase in obesity.
Are we becoming addicted to sugar?
In support of these associations is Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco and author of the book Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth About Sugar, who claims sugar is a “toxic” substance that we are becoming addicted to.
A 2008 study by researchers from Princeton University, NJ, found rats used to consuming a high-sugar diet displayed signs of binging, craving and withdrawal when their sugar intake was reduced.
A woman tempted by chocolate
Dr Lustig: “We need to wean ourselves off. We need to de-sweeten our lives. Therefore, we need to make sugar a treat, not a diet staple.”We need to wean ourselves off. However, we need to de-sweeten our lives.”
“We need to make sugar a treat, not a diet staple”
Dr. Lustig told The Guardian in 2013. “The food industry has made it into a diet staple because they know when they do you buy more,” he added. “This is their hook. If some unscrupulous cereal manufacturer went out and laced your breakfast cereal with morphine to get you to buy more, what would you think of that? They do it with sugar instead.”
In her popular blog, Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow cites sugar addiction as one of the reasons she decided to quit sugar completely.
“The bottom line is that sugar works the addiction and reward pathways in the brain in much the same way as many illegal drugs,” she writes. “Sugar is basically a socially acceptable, legal, recreational drug with deadly consequences.”
Statistics show that we are certainly a nation of added-sugar lovers. According to a report from the CDC, adults in the US consumed around 13% of their total daily calorie intake from added sugars between 2005-2010, while 16% of children’s and adolescents’ total calorie intake came from added sugars between 2005-2008.
These levels are well above those currently recommended by WHO, which state we should consume no more than 10% of total daily calories from “free” sugars – both naturally occurring sugars and those that are added to products by the manufacturer.
In 2013, however, MNT reported on a study by Prof. Wayne Potts and colleagues from the University of Utah, claiming that even consuming added sugars at recommended levels may be harmful to health, after finding that such levels reduced lifespan in mice.
Is eliminating sugar from our diet THE healthy THING TO DO?
The array of studies reporting the negative implications of added sugar led to WHO making a proposal to revise their added sugar recommendations in 2014. The organization issued a draft guideline stating they would like to halve their recommended daily free sugar intake from 10% to 5%.
“The objective of this guideline is to provide recommendations on the consumption of free sugars to reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases in adults and children,” WHO explained, “with a particular focus on the prevention and control of weight gain and dental caries.”
In addition, it seems many health experts, nutritionists and even celebrities like Gwyneth have jumped on a “no sugar” bandwagon.
But is it even possible to completely eliminate sugar from a diet? And is it safe? Biochemist Leah Fitzsimmons, of the University of Birmingham in the UK, told The Daily Mail:
“Cutting all sugar from your diet would be very difficult to achieve. Fruits, vegetables, dairy products and dairy replacements, eggs, alcohol and nuts all contain sugar, which would leave you with little other than meat and fats to eat – definitely not very healthy.”
Many people turn to artificial sweeteners as a sugar alternative, but according to studies, these sweeteners may still drive diabetes and obesity.
“Together with other major shifts that occurred in human nutrition, this increase in artificial sweetener consumption coincides with the dramatic increase in the obesity and diabetes epidemics,” the authors note. “Our findings suggest that artificial sweeteners may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight.”