Updated 20 March 2014

Sugar: why the bad rap?

Sugar is a natural sweetener that has been enjoyed by people for many centuries – why has it suddenly become a "forbidden" food?

Cane sugar has been receiving a lot of bad press lately with the natural sweetener being blamed for everything from obesity to an increased risk for lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer. 

Some have gone as far as calling sugar the "new tobacco", claiming that it is toxic and addictive.

However, sugar is a natural sweetener that has been enjoyed by people for many centuries – why has it suddenly become a "forbidden" food?  What has changed?

Registered consulting dietitian Judith Johnson helps unpack the sugar issue:

How much sugar is too much sugar?

This depends on your health. If you suffer from insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, fatigue or just have belly fat, then any sugar is too much sugar.

Insulin resistance is a condition in which the cells of the body become resistant to the hormone insulin. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions — a high blood sugar level, excess belly fat, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels — that occur together and increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

If you are healthy, normal weight, exercising and feel energised overall then you can handle small amounts of sugar e.g. only 1/2 to 1 tsp sugar in your tea or a few chocolate squares.

Quiz: Am I eating too much sugar?

What does sugar do to my body – in the context of Tim Noakes's (low-carb/high-fat) dietary findings?

When simple sugars are ingested, the body secretes insulin to get these sugars into our cells. If this process continues repeatedly, it can cause insulin resistance, leading to belly fat and metabolic complications.

So only few, slow releasing carbohydrates should be eaten. Examples are quinoa, brown basmati rice, millet, buckwheat, starchy vegetables and fruits with their skin on. Healthy fat and protein should replace simple sugars in the diet if you want to maintain stable blood sugar levels.

Read: Is sugar a baddie?

Is sugar really physically addictive as some studies suggest?

Sugar is not "addictive" in the sense that drugs are, but sugar cravings are very real and withdrawing from sugar can leave you feeling cranky and tired if not handled correctly.

This is because too much sugar causes an imbalance in our brain biochemistry, blood glucose and gut health, reducing our "feel good" brain chemicals. This in turn makes us crave more sugar to feel better.

What do you think of the new "lite sugars" that contain polydextrose? What is this and is it OK to eat?

Polydextrose, commonly known as xylitol, is a "lite sugar" that is less sweet than cane sugar and has fewer calories. It doesn’t produce big changes in blood sugar and most studies have found it safe. Plus, it won’t cause tooth decay!

How can people easily/gently wean themselves off sugar?

It is tricky to wean yourself off sugar gently.

The best approach is to stay away completely but replace it with good fats and protein foods. As soon as you let your blood glucose levels drop you’ll start craving sugar.

Most people crave sugar mid-morning, late afternoon or late evening and this is usually because their previous meal didn’t contain enough fat and protein to keep them full and satisfied.

Read: 5 sugar myths

What is your take on sugar and ADHD?

We know that the brain needs hormones like GABA, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine/norepinephrine to enable us to focus and feel relaxed and happy.

These hormones are derived from essential fatty acids and proteins which we get mainly from fish, eggs, grass fed animals and other sources of beneficial fats.

By eating sugar and refined carbohydrates, we are eating empty calories, which then replace the calories available from these fats and proteins in the diet.

Sugar-containing foods are often found together with colourants and flavourants which are well known to worsen the symptoms of ADHD, so it is worth removing sugar and refined carbohydrates and see if your child responds well.

Read more:
Adults should eat less than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day
10 foods with hidden sugar
10 interesting sugar facts

*Judith Johnson is a registered consulting dietitian. She has been in private practice for 25 years and is now an advisory to Wellness Warehouse in Cape Town.

(Image: different types of sugar  from Shutterstock)


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