Sugar – Current State of the Media
As you know there is a crusade going on in the media against Sugar (and carbohydrates in general) which often leads people to think that sugar is the main cause of obesity.
And many people start to believe that calorie for calorie sugar is somehow inherently more fattening compared to other sources of energy.
Marketers and “gurus” will often make statements like “sugar is addictive”, “sugar is evil”, “sugar is toxic and poisonous”, “sugar makes you fat”, “sugar is the main cause of obesity” and none of those claims really have any evidence to support them.
Does Sugar Make You Fat?
Sugar is not inherently fattening compared to other carbohydrate sources. You will not gain more fat with a diet high in sugar compared to a diet with lower sugar as long as calorie intake does not exceed expenditure.
Early data shows correlation but correlation isn’t the same as causation. Ice-cream consumption correlates with how many people drown. Does that mean ice-cream makes people drown? No. When it gets hot outside people will eat more ice cream, and people will swim more.
In fact, sugar consumption went down looking at the data for the last 15 years. And the obesity epidemic is spreading without any trend of slowing down.
People don’t want to face the truth. We’re eating more than ever (of all macro-nutrients) and we’re moving less and less. This is not just related to deliberate exercise but general movement. And another often underestimated contributor to calorie intake is alcohol consumption which is steadily increasing every year.
However, added sugars may contribute to increased calorie intake and fat gain via:
– Increase energy density (overconsumption of calories)
– Enhanced palatability and reward (over-consuming calories)
– Liquid calories (sugar-sweetened beverages) don’t provide adequate satiety compared to solid foods and can again lead to overconsumption of calories.
In a nutshell, there is nothing magical about sugar that will make someone fat if the calories are kept in check.
As a general guideline, if you keep an eye on your calories to make sure you’re not over-consuming and if the majority of your food intake come from whole healthy unprocessed foods, there’s no need to track sugar intake.
For a diet setup it is recommended to figure out your calorie and protein intake first and then base the ratio of carbohydrate to fat on personal preference.
Understanding the different forms of sugar
Sweet, tasty, and energy dense. We are biologically wired to enjoy eating sugar. While this desire served a vital purpose in the prehistoric age where every calorie was essential, in the modern world sugar is everywhere, and takes almost no effort to acquire.
As quickly as saturated fats rose to their new standing – regarded as an essential nutrient after the lipid hypothesis of cardiovascular disease has come under serious scientific scrutiny – sugar has been placed firmly in the cruel spotlight as the product responsible for many of the modern world’s health problems such as obesity.
But is this attention justified? And if you have issues stemming from sugar intake, what can you do about it?
The difficulty is that sugar is present, to some extent, in most of the foods we eat, but the source it comes from counts for a great deal in terms of how the body uses it.
Sugar sources can be considered to be on a continuum from simple to complex – singular molecules such as glucose and fructose on one side, and large complex carbohydrate chains such as the starches in potatoes found on the other.
While it all ends up as sugar in your bloodstream after digestion – simple sugars get there far more quickly, spiking your blood glucose and insulin levels, increasing the likelihood of fat storage. Complex carbohydrates are broken down into their sugar components much slower, and elicit a steadier blood glucose response. This is an important consideration. Because sugar is not just sticky to the touch – it is also sticky on a chemical level. At high concentrations, it attaches to proteins in the body and renders them inactive, a process known as glycation. One example is glycation of the proteins in your skin, such as collagen, which is a major contributor to skin losing its elasticity and appearing aged.
Besides simple vs complex sugars, there is another major factor to consider when consuming sugar, namely the other nutrients in that food source. Highly processed sources, such as table sugar or syrups, have been stripped off nearly all of its nutrition, and are pure mixtures of glucose, fructose or sucrose.
These sugars are of course found in fruits. So do the possible negatives of sugar mean we should be avoiding fruits? Well, no, not really. While the sugars in fruits are simple, they are bound up in the fibre of the fruit itself. This fibre takes time to digest, meaning the sugars are released in a time controlled manner. The fibre and water content of fruit also contribute to satiety, so it is harder to overeat fruit compared to ploughing through a packet of biscuits.
Fruits also bring a high vitamin and mineral content to the table, and their phytochemical content (chemicals only found in plants) can have a myriad of health benefits. One such example is pro-anthocyanidins, the pigment responsible for making blueberries blue. These compounds actually improve the body’s ability to deal with sugar by improving insulin sensitivity. In a study of 32 insulin resistant people, daily blueberry intake significantly lowered blood sugar levels over 6 weeks.
All plant-based foods contain sugars to some degree. And as plants are some of our best sources for many essential nutrients, avoiding them completely would likely lead to major deficiencies over time. When sugar is ‘packaged’ in whole foods in this way, we experience the benefits of the accompanying nutrients. However, minimizing foods heavy in refined sugars is definitely a worthwhile goal.
When consumed at the level your body requires, sugar is just a form of energy. When consumed in excess, it will be stored as fat. When consumed in chronic excess, sugar can cause serious problems – unbalancing hormone levels, damaging the cardiovascular system, and driving insulin resistance which predisposes one to diabetes.
Refined fructose in particular can cause problems, as most cells in the body cannot use it directly. It has to be handled by the liver. As the sweetest tasting sugar, fructose is added to all sorts of processed foods to enhance their flavour, and over a long period of time this can increase stress on the liver, even contributing to fatty liver disease.
The issue here is that consuming sugar, in one form or another, is pretty much inescapable. While consuming sugar alone is not necessary in the modern world, the foods through which we consume it are. It exists in practically every food source, and you’d have to be on an intensely restrictive diet to entirely avoid it, which would likely lead to missing out on some beneficial nutrients.
The problems that stem from sugar are typically those of excess consumption – the overconsumption of processed, nutrient-absent foods. With that in mind, here are some quick and easy tips to manage your sugar intake:
- Replace fizzy and sweetened drinks with water, tea or coffee
- Focus your diet around whole foods that have a balance of nutrients and fibre to accompany any sugar content
- If you want to indulge, try to fill up on the good stuff first – veggies, protein, and healthy fats. This will help to reduce the portion size of the following treat.
The key to all of this is to be aware of what you are putting in your body. It is certainly possible to cut out all refined sugar, but focusing on a balanced, whole food diet, will have great health benefits, without having to obsess over the sugar content of your food.