Is sugar as bad for our health as the headlines say?
Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer takes a closer look and busts some myths.
‘Pure, white and deadly’ is how sugar was described in a now famous book by John Yudkin, a British nutritionist, written in1972. Clearly, research has evolved since then giving us a greater understanding of nutrition and the human body in general. Does this description of sugar need to change or is it as true now as it’s ever been? Read on for the answers to some frequently asked questions about sugar.
What’s the problem with sugar?
Most of us are aware of the on-going conundrum with food manufacturers and retailers around sugar versus fat. During the 1970’s and 80’s a plethora of low-fat diets emerged because it was thought that fat, and in particular saturated fat, was the cause of many heath issues. However, further research, knowledge and national statistics have evolved telling us that we are getting fatter and fatter as a nation and we have a serious obesity crisis. Clearly something’s going wrong with our health. And it’s primarily down to the amount of sugar we consume, not just in the UK but worldwide.
Not only does sugar affect blood sugar levels, setting off highs and lows of mood and energy, it’s the main cause of type 2 diabetes. This is a serious disease because of the long-term health issues involved including eyesight loss, nerve damage to the feet and kidneys and heart disease.
Put simply, sugar and insulin (the hormone needed to control sugar metabolism in the body) attack the arteries via a process called glycosylation and it’s particularly vicious in the blood capillaries serving the eyes. High insulin levels also block the metabolism of our essential omega-3 and 6 fats – which as a nation we have also eaten less of over recent years, believing all fats to be bad!
The simple truth is that sugar is sugar in all its forms and its intake needs to be carefully monitored and managed. Humans were not evolved to eat the amount of sugar currently being consumed and it’s certainly a contributing factor to many of our serious degenerative diseases.
What’s the difference between white and brown sugar?
The short answer is not very much!
In the case of sugar, the only difference with the brown variety is that it has molasses added which gives it a slightly different taste profile and a smaller mineral content than white. The bottom line is too much sugar, be it white or brown, is still going to contribute to weight gain.
When it comes to brown versus white, we need to decrease the amount of white or refined carbohydrates we consume and switch to brown or whole grain carbs. These contain many more nutrients and don’t adversely affect blood sugar levels.
What about ‘natural’ sugars?
Honey is often hailed for its health benefits. Indeed, Manuka honey can help boost the immune system and traditional honey has boasted many potential health benefits over the years.
Equally, fructose, naturally found in fruits and some vegetables, is seen as a more acceptable option. Interestingly, fructose does have less impact on blood sugar levels as it must be processed through the liver. Fruits such as blueberries are high in fructose and are low on the glycaemic index. And where fruit is concerned, these amazing gifts from nature of course provide some wonderful health benefits. When it comes to their vitamin, mineral and antioxidant profiles, they definitely have a place in the daily diet.
Even natural sugars, however, are high in calories. If too much is eaten, some of the sugar will be broken down into glucose and used for energy but any excess is still stored as fat. And whilst that dessertspoon of honey on your morning porridge may have some positive effects on health, the downside certainly outweighs the upside.