Sugar is in the news, and on a lot of peoples’ minds at the moment. I wanted to write a blog to give some guidance and provide a correct interpretation of the best evidence available to us. I have decided to write this blog in the style of debunking the myths around sugar. Hopefully this will make it both informative and easier to read and understand.
Myth #1: Sugar causes diabetes
Sugar itself does not cause diabetes. The main cause of diabetes (type 2 is what we’re talking about here) – is being overweight or obese. In particular it increases your risk of diabetes if you carry weight around your ‘abdomen’ – your tummy and chest area. This is because fat tissue decreases your sensitivity to the insulin your body produces, meaning it stops working as well (this is called ‘insulin resistance’). Being overweight / obese is usually a combination of poor diet – too many calories eaten and not enough physical activity. Both sugary and fatty foods are thought to be responsible for our nation’s increasing obesity levels. Sugar on its own is not the problem – it’s the combination of too much sugar, too much fat, the wrong balance and insufficient exercise.
Myth #2: Natural sugars are all good for us
‘Natural sugars’ is a confusing term. The white sugar in your kitchen cupboard comes of sugar-beet – is this not a natural sugar?! The difference is when sugar (any type – from a ‘natural’ source of not) is added to a food. Whether it’s ‘sugar’, ‘fructose’, ‘natural sugar’, ‘high fructose corn syrup’ that’s added – calories are calories regardless of their source. Yes, fructose (found in fruit) is digested and metabolised a little differently than sucrose (found in white sugar) – however it’s only when fruit is eaten in its whole form that you get all those benefits. When fructose is taken out of the fruit and put into another food to make it sweeter, the calories are the same.
Myth #3: Fruit juices and smoothies are a healthy alternative to fruit
Believe it or not, fruit juice has similar calories to non-diet fizzy drinks. Fruit juices / smoothies are high in calories because of the concentrated fruit content – imagine how many oranges you would have to squeeze to make a glass of OJ? Yes, fruit juice and smoothies do contain important vitamins and antioxidants – but so does whole fruit. Never underestimate the ‘power’ of eating the whole fruit. When eating the whole fruit, you get the benefits of the fibre, the slower digestion and slower release of sugars into the blood-stream. Fruits are also low in calories, whereas drinking a glass of fruit juice / smoothie is much higher in calories.
Myth #4: We don’t need sugar in our diet
We have been eating sugar since birth, in the form of lactose in breast milk or infant formula – so of course we can safely include sugar in our diets. We need to include healthy sources of sugar in our diet – such as fruit (containing fructose) and dairy products (containing lactose). These foods contain essential nutrients such as vitamins, antioxidants and fibre (fruit), and calcium, vitamins and protein (dairy products). It’s sugary, processed foods that we don’t need in our diet – foods like sugary fizzy drinks, cakes, doughnuts, biscuits, sweets and chocolate – these foods have little nutritional value other than calories.
Myth #5: Low carb (or ‘no carb’) diets are the way to go
That really depends what you mean by low… and what you mean by carbs…. Carbs (carbohydrates) include starchy foods like rice, pasta and potatoes, and all types of sugar, including fruits, dairy products, sugary foods and drinks. Starchy carbohydrates are important to help control weight, control blood sugar and keep our metabolism working well. It’s all about portion control though – limiting portions to 50g (uncooked weight) of rice, 75g (uncooked weight) of pasta, or 30g of breakfast cereal. It’s also about including your 5 portions of fruit/veg a day (including more veg than fruit), and including at least 2 servings of low fat dairy foods, e.g. milk, yoghurts, soft cheese. And of course, limit / avoid sugary foods, and foods where sugar is added as an ingredient.