Is sugar really that bad for us?
Is sugar really that bad for us?
Sugar: we literally can’t live without it, but too much added sugar can hurt us. It’s in almost every packaged and fast food out there, and our high-sugar Western diet is now associated with chronic ill health.
The problem is that cutting added sugar from your diet can seem ‘easier said than done’, especially if you’re time-poor. To help, we’ve asked Registered Nutritionist and Pharmacist Sarah Gray about the effects of too much sugar, why added sugar is bad for you, and for simple ways to reduce your daily sugar intake.
We also explore how to spot the products that are higher in sugar than you’d think.
Why we need some sugar in our diets
Firstly, Sarah says that we do need some sugar in our diets. Sugar is essential for many key biological processes. And almost everything we eat contains some level of sugar, because there are so many different types of sugars in different foods.
Glucose is probably the single most important sugar because it provides energy to every cell in your body – including your brain cells.
“Your brain needs glucose to function,” Sarah comments, adding that your brain uses about a third of the glucose in your bloodstream. “Yes, your brain can use other fuel sources when glucose stores are low, but it doesn’t run as well. Glucose is undoubtedly the brain's premium fuel.”
Additionally, Sarah says, your muscle cells need glucose to function – and they need even more when you exercise. So, yes, we all need some sugar in our diets. However, the naturally occurring sugars in fresh wholefoods such as vegetables, fruit and dairy provide more than enough for most people.
Unfortunately, the average Western diet provides far more sugar than we need. It’s usually high in processed foods that are absolutely packed with added sugars, resulting in a far higher intake than we need.
What happens if you eat too much sugar?
Eating too much sugar, just like eating an excess of any nutrient, puts us at risk of weight gain. A higher weight isn’t necessarily a problem for all people, and we certainly don’t want to recommend fad dieting. However, there’s evidence that a high sugar intake may also be associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases.
And those are real problems.
Additionally, Sarah comments that, “Sugar can interfere with the hormones that regulate hunger and satiety (the feeling of fullness) in your body. So the effects of too much sugar can include messing with your hunger levels. As a result, you feel a bit hungrier, which may then lead to compulsive overeating.”
On top of that, too much sugar can change the way your body reacts to insulin – the hormone your body uses to drive glucose into its cells for energy. This in turn can change the way you store fat, and may be associated with metabolic disease. In other words, eating a lot of sugar can predispose you to a lot of problems, Sarah adds.
And that doesn’t even consider sugar’s short-term ‘empty calorie’ effects on the body. Eating too many high-sugar foods like lollies, chocolate and soft drinks provides huge doses of energy with no nutrients. Sarah describes those foods as ‘nutrient-poor’, meaning that they’re high in kilojoules while delivering no nutrition.
Suggested break-out box:
How much sugar should you have per day?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that added sugars make up no more than 10% of our daily energy intake.
For an average healthy adult, that works out to be about 12 teaspoons, or 50 grams a day, according to Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
Sugar and your teeth
We all know that sugar is bad for our dental health, and Sarah describes it as, “a nightmare for your teeth.”
She goes on to say that eating a lot of sweets – particularly chewy ones like caramels – or sweetened beverages makes you more likely to get cavities and dental disease. “Sugary drinks and sticky, sweetened foods bathe your teeth in sugar. That provides a perfect breeding ground for the bacteria that end up destroying your teeth.”
The impact of sugar on dental health is the main reason that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends limiting sugar intake. So how much is too much? WHO recommends keeping it to less than 10% of your total energy each day.
Sugar and your skin
Your skin is the largest organ in your body, so it’s no surprise that it often reflects what’s going on with your overall health. And sure enough, one study found that adults who ate more fatty, sugary foods, sugary beverages and sweetened milk had higher rates of acne.
Sarah comments that acne can have a range of causes beyond your diet, including hormones and stress. But if you do have acne, it can be worth investigating whether cutting out sugar has any benefits for your skin.
How to reduce sugar in your diet
OK, you know the benefits of quitting sugar – or at least reducing your intake. After all, as we’ve discussed, you do need some sugar in your diet. But what’s the best way to cut back?
One thing Sarah doesn’t recommend is trying to avoid the sugars that occur in natural, whole fruits, vegetables or dairy. “There’s an abundance of evidence to show that fruit is good for us,” she explains. That’s because the sugar in fruit and other whole foods is bound up in the plant cells along with fibre, nutrients and antioxidants.
The problem is more with processed foods that are packed with (often well-hidden) added sugars. Those added sugars, which mainly come from sugarcane, are so highly processed that they have few – if any – nutrients left in them.
That’s why Sarah recommends getting most of your sugar from the natural sources above. “If a food is high in nutrients with only a little sugar, it’s fine to eat,” she says. “Just try to limit the processed, low-nutrient sweet treats you eat. In particular, avoid biscuits, cakes, lollies, doughnuts, pastries and soft drinks.”
So what are Sarah’s top tips for cutting your sugar intake?
- Eat fewer processed foods like the ones mentioned above to cut your sugar consumption dramatically.
- Try leaving sugar out of your coffee or tea – you may find you like it better!
- Drink water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Use extracts and essences in cooking – in particular, try vanilla or orange.
- Try adding vanilla instead of sugar to foods like porridge – the flavour can trick your taste buds into thinking it’s sweet.
- Eat your fruit fresh and whole rather than canned, dried or as juice – all of which can contain a lot of added sugar.
Watch for foods that contain hidden sugars
Another big tip Sarah offers is to watch for less obvious sugars.
It’s fairly clear that sugar levels in lolly snakes and chocolate doughnuts are off-the-chart. But next time you’re shopping, look closely at the ingredients list for each product and check it for sugar. It can be listed under lots of different names including sucrose, fructose, dextrose and lactose.
The closer to the beginning of the list an ingredient occurs, the more of it that food contains. And some allegedly ‘healthy’ foods can be very high in sugar, even though shops might deceptively place them in the health food aisle. For example:
- Low-fat flavoured yoghurts have a lot of added sugar to give them more taste. Fat adds flavour, so low-fat yoghurt needs extra sweetening to be palatable.
- Sauces like barbecue and tomato sauce and mayonnaise often contain a lot of sugar.
- Sports drinks have around 400% more sugar – and only a quarter of the electrolytes – compared to the rehydration solution you can buy from the chemist.
- Breakfast cereals like muesli can contain a lot of sugar, even if you find them in the health food aisle.
- Protein bars can be very high in sugar to add more taste.
- Canned soups are usually packed with sugar (and salt) to make them taste good.
Consider using less processed sugar alternatives
White granulated table sugar is very highly processed, refined, and has had a lot of chemical treatment. Sarah suggests unrefined coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup and molasses as potentially better alternatives.
“They're a little better because they’re less refined, so they can provide trace amounts of other nutrients that you need in your diet,” she explains. “For example, honey and maple syrup both contain small amounts of important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.”
However, Sarah cautions that your body will still metabolise these alternatives the same way it does sugar. That means you need to limit your intake of the alternatives too.
Above all, keep it balanced
As with so many things, when it comes to sugar consumption, the key is balance. It’s true that you need some sugar to fuel your body and brain, but too much can be associated with a whole range of health problems.
And while some people recommend giving up sugar for weight management, we think there are far better reasons to cut back.
So to look after yourself well, choose foods with very little added sugar, and consider using unprocessed sources of sugar that also have essential nutrients. Take a look at whether organic food is really better for us, and whether the food pyramid is still considered best practice.
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Sarah Gray is both a Registered Pharmacist and Registered Nutritionist with a particular interest in health education and helping people to take small steps to big change in their health journey. Sarah is the Head of Health and Nutrition on the healthylife Advisory Panel.
Reviewed by healthylife Advisory Board June 2021