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Is sugar really that bad?

 

There is arguably no topic hotter in nutrition right now than the health effects of sugar, and what we should be doing about it Sugar is everywhere, not just in the sweet treats we expect but also hidden in daily staples like bread and other processed foods. The British Medical Journal’s (BMJ) Open Heart, published in partnership with the British Cardiovascular Society, ran an article that hit sugar hard:

“Added sugars provide energy (calories), but in the context of consumption at current intake levels, they hinder the production of energy, and through the direct influence on a wide array of cardiometabolic disease processes, they lead to reduced quality of life and decreased lifespan, and thus cannot be considered food.”

This unprecedented scientific opinion reflects the emerging view in popular culture that sugar is toxic, and we should be eating a lot less. But how much sugar should we be eating? Is sugar really toxic? And can you really “detox” sugar? Let’s dive in and find out

How much sugar should we be eating?

We can trace the rise in sugar to a single time-point, the industrial revolution. The per capita refined sugar (sucrose) consumption in England rose from 130g per week in 1815 to today’s consumption of added sugars of 344.4g per week for women and 478.8g for men, which is an average of 11.7 to 16 teaspoons per day respectively. These figures are not much different for children and adolescents, which is particularly alarming as their relatively low energy expenditure and body weight compared to adults means that their sugar intake is disproportionally higher. [i] [ii]

Contrast this to the current consensus on healthy sugar intakes and most people are at least double recommended levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommend <10% total calories with the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition in England (SACN) pushing for <5% total calories, or:

  • Less than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) per day for men
  • Less than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women 
  • Less than 3-6 teaspoons (12 - 25 grams) per day for children

The sugar in our diets is almost exclusively from added-sugars hidden in foods, mostly sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g. soft drinks, fruit juices, milk drinks, energy drinks), and packaged processed and ultra-processed foods (especially cereals and baked goods). The prevalence of sugar in foods may be shocking, but food manufacturers use sugars with many different names which makes it hard to know what you are eating, here are just a few:

Names for sugar and sweeteners

  • Sucrose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Fructose
  • Honey
  • Corn syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltitol
  • Agave nectar or syrup
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Erythritol
  • Barley malt
  • Dextrose
  • Coconut sugar
  • Cane sugar
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Grape sugar
  • Grape concentrate
  • Apple concentrate
  • Raw sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Demerara sugar
  • Palm sugar
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Date sugar
  • Date concentrate

So it is clear that relatively recently sugar has become ubiquitous in modern, processed diets, and at levels that greatly exceed recommend intakes. But should we be worried?

Is sugar really toxic?

While a bit of honey in your tea can be part of a healthy diet, eating food laced with added sugars all day is a different matter. The current research quite clearly shows that sugar, at a high enough intake, is toxic. Toxic in that it adversely affects your metabolism in a way that increases risk for disease, and there is plenty of evidence to show it can directly result in some serious health consequences.

So what happens when you compare someone who is relatively sugar-free to those who consume added sugar at a level that matches the average dietary intake? To answer this a high profile research team from the University of California conducted a “this is you, on sugar” experiment.[i] Over just 2-weeks they found that added sugars, at levels that match average intakes, significantly increased a number of cardiovascular risk markers in the blood of young adults. Keep in mind that most people are consuming this much sugar, every day, for most of their lives.

But what about links to actual diseases? We have heard sugar rots your teeth, but could it damage organs such as your liver, brain and heart as well?  Linking any dietary factor to disease is inherently difficult due to problems such as inaccurate measures of what people are eating and teasing out the effects of sugar vs the food its hidden in. Fortunately, we have sugar-sweetened beverages: liquid sugar, and people are drinking loads of it.

Large-scale studies of sugar-sweetened beverages have shown strong links to diseases you might expect, such as heart disease, obesity, and type-2 diabetes. In most cases increases in risk are similar magnitude to smoking or not exercising. But, most concerning, other and sometimes surprising diseases are now strongly associated with drinking sugar, such as gout, arthritis, autoimmune disease, fatty liver disease, depression, and dementia. It appears that sugar does actually rot your body, resulting in breakdown of organs and tissues and ultimately life-threatening diseases.

Can you really “detox” sugar?

Ironically, the proof that sugar is bad for you is in the pudding. Despite the popularity of sugar detox or reduction diets, only recently has the science shed light on the health effects of quitting sugar. And it appears that detoxing sugar could indeed transform your health.

To see if your taste for sugary foods does change after quitting sugar, in one study a group of 20 people cut out all added sugars and artificial sweeteners in their diets for 2-weeks.[ii] After the sugar detox challenge, 95% of people found that sweet foods and drinks tasted sweeter or too sweet, 75% found that other foods tasted sweeter, and 95% said that moving forward they would use less or even no sugar. And quitting sugar got easy fast; with 86.6% of people reporting that they had no more cravings for sugar after just 6-days.

And the health benefits are fast and striking. Robert Lustig MD, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at University of California and author of “Fat Chance, The Hidden Truth About Sugar,” published his own sugar detox study.[iii] Lustig and his team found that restricting sugar, while keeping calories constant, in the diet of a group of adolescents resulted in big reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, insulin, and body fat, within just 9-days!

The solution

Removing added sugars from the diet can promote balanced blood sugar in the body. Reading the labels of processed food and drink is vital to place greater attention on the sugar content. Additionally, there are nutrients such as chromium, cinnamon and alpha lipoic acid that can help with reducing sugar and make balancing blood sugar easier.  Cinnamon may help improve glycemic control, stabilise mood and reduce the potential for cravings and need for ‘stimulants’.  Chromium works closely with insulin in facilitating the uptaking of glucose into cells. Without chromium, insulin’s action is blocked and blood sugar levels are elevated. Furthermore, chromium supplementation has been shown to reduce carbohydrate cravings.[iv] N-acetyl-cysteine also known as NAC, is an precursor to the amino acid L-cysteine, and is thought to play an important role in reward, laughter, pleasure, addiction and fear. This ingredient is often paired with chromium and cinnamon and has also been shown to prevent carbohydrate cravings and therefore blood glucose levels.

Conclusion

It is clear from the evidence that too much sugar is toxic, and that cutting down sugar intake is a major health priority for most people. The problem is that modern, processed foods are sugar coated, both literally and figuratively, so cutting down on sugar is challenging but not impossible. Easing off the foods containing added sugars, opting for unsweetened choices and supplementing with chromium and cinnamon can have a significant impact. The key to supporting your health goals is starting small and creating healthy habits that stick. Read more about how to do this in the Viridian Dejunk Your Life Report .

Author: The Nutrition Team at Viridian

Suggested Further Reading

Viridian Dejunk Your Life Report

[i] Stanhope KL, Medici V, Bremer AA, Lee V, Lam HD, Nunez MV, Chen GX, Keim NL, Havel PJ. A dose-response study of consuming high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages on lipid/lipoprotein risk factors for cardiovascular disease in young adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Jun;101(6):1144-54.

[ii] Bartolotto C. Does Consuming Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners Change Taste Preferences? Perm J. 2015 Summer;19(3):81-4.

[iii]Lustig RH, Mulligan K, Noworolski SM, Tai VW, Wen MJ, Erkin-Cakmak A,Gugliucci A, Schwarz JM. Isocaloric fructose restriction and metabolicimprovement in children with obesity and metabolic syndrome. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016 Feb;24(2):453-60.

[iv] Docherty JP, Sack DA, Roffman M, Finch M, Komorowski JR.A double-blind, placebo-controlled, exploratory trial of chromium picolinate in atypical depression: effect on carbohydrate craving.J Psychiatr Pract. 2005 Sep;11(5):302-14 

The information contained in this article is not intended to treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a health practitioner. Please consult a qualified health practitioner if you have a pre-existing health condition or are currently taking medication. Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet.

 

[i] Cordain L, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Feb;81(2):341-54.

[ii] Official Statistics. National Diet and Nutrition Survey: results from Years 1 to 4 (combined) of the rolling programme for 2008 and 2009 to 2011 and 2012. From: Public Health England and Food Standards Agency. First published: 14 May 2014

 




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