Sugar is a controversial topic when it comes to diet and health. It is a major source of energy for our bodies, but consuming too much added sugar can have negative effects on our health.
With the rise of sugar-free diets and the popularity of sugar detoxes, it is clear that many people are concerned about their sugar intake. However, what does science say about the role of sugar in our diets? Is it essential, or is it something we should aim to avoid altogether?
What is sugar?
Sugars are a type of carbohydrate. Specifically, the term “sugar” refers to all sweet carbohydrates.
However, sugar is also a layman’s term for table sugar or sucrose. When we consume carbohydrates, our bodies break them down into glucose, the primary source of energy for our bodies.
Foods and drinks can contain sugars that occur naturally or are added to them. You can find naturally occurring sugars in various products, such as lactose in milk, fructose in fruit and honey, glucose in fruits and vegetables, and maltose in wheat and barley.
There is no chemical difference between naturally occurring and added sugars, which means naturally occurring sugars are not necessarily healthier than added sugars. However, naturally occurring sugars are more likely to be in foods with useful nutrients.
For instance, fruit contains fibre, vitamins, and minerals alongside fructose, while most foods and drinks that contain added sugars lack these nutrients.
Some foods and drinks even combine the two. Yoghurt, for example, contains lactose, but it may also contain added sugar to enhance its taste.
Effects of too much sugar
Excessive sugar consumption can lead to various health issues. For example, one study in the UK found a link between higher mortality rates and prolonged consumption of sugar through sweetened beverages compared to fruit or vegetable juices.
Sugar is also an energy-dense carb. This is what makes excessive consumption of sugar can lead to obesity, especially if not balanced out with exercise. In turn, obesity can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and, in worse scenarios, cancer and stroke.
Other risks associated with excessive sugar consumption include heart disease, tooth decay, and fatty liver disease.
Benefits of sugar
Consuming sugar in moderation as part of a balanced diet is beneficial for your body, as we need it as fuel. However, you don’t need to consume added sugars, as your body will automatically derive them from other food molecules.
To maintain a healthy and balanced diet, we can primarily consume calories from sources such as starchy foods (preferably wholegrain), fruits, and vegetables, and limit or avoid foods that contain high levels of free sugars.
The UK National Health Service (NHS) recommends limiting the consumption of free sugars to no more than five percent of your daily calorie intake from food and beverages.
Free sugars — commonly available in sweets, biscuits, cake, chocolate, and some soda and juice drinks — are the sugars we need to consume less of, as fruits, vegetables, and milk already contain natural sugars.
Although we do not necessarily need to cut down on the consumption of naturally-occurring sugars, keep in mind that these are counted in the “total sugars” figure on food labels.
Here is the breakdown of the recommended daily sugar intake for each age group:
- Adults should limit their free sugar intake to 30g (equivalent to 7 sugar cubes).
- Children aged 7 to 10 should limit their free sugar intake to 24g (6 sugar cubes).
- Children aged 4 to 6 should limit their free sugar intake to 19g (5 sugar cubes).
- There is no guideline for children under 4, but the NHS recommends they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and foods with added sugar.
A balanced sugar intake offers various health benefits, including decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, fewer sugar cravings, improved mental health, and more energy.
Reducing the intake of added sugars can aid in maintaining healthy blood glucose levels and weight management, ultimately decreasing the risk of developing diabetes.
Eating sugary treats like cake, cookies, or candy can prevent the brain from signalling to the body that it is full, resulting in the urge to eat more to feel satisfied. Reducing sugar intake can break this cycle and decrease the brain’s urge to seek more sugar.
Research has shown that a higher intake of added sugars from sugar-sweetened beverages and sweet foods is associated with a higher risk of depression. Added sugar’s higher glycemic index is believed to cause inflammation in the brain, which might be the reason why added sugar can affect mental health.
Lastly, reducing your sugar intake makes your blood sugar levels more stable, with fewer highs and lows, resulting in an increase in overall energy.
Tips for Managing Your Sugar Intake
A healthy lifestyle can include an appropriate amount of sugar with moderation and portion control.
Here are some tips you can follow to manage your sugar intake:
- Use vinegar, tomatoes, herbs, spices, onions, or garlic to make your own sauces and to flavour food.
- Eat less discretionary foods such as cakes, biscuits, desserts, and ice cream.
- Drink plain water or mineral water instead of sweetened drinks.
- Choose plain, unsweetened yoghurt, and add fresh fruit to sweeten it.
You can also reduce the sugar in your drinks and food by looking up the calories in your glass or on your plate.
Try to consume less pre-packaged or processed food, but if you cannot help yourself, check its nutrition labels for more information. The NHS also provides the Food Scanner app, which can help you determine the ingredients in your food packets.
In conclusion, while some amount of sugar is necessary for the body to function, the body does not require added sugar. Instead, opting for natural sources of sugar, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, can help us maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid health complications associated with excessive sugar consumption.