Sugar is one of the most popular and ubiquitous substances in our diets today, but while it might taste sweet, the impact on our bodies is not so much.
At times its presence is obvious but sometimes, it’s not easy to discern or to necessarily taste. Nonetheless you’ve probably seen its effects in action.
You may have noticed the behaviour of young children, especially the ones that go a bit crazy at birthday parties, after they’ve had some lollies or other sugar-laden foods.
You may also know that high-sugar and not high-fat is often now considered to be the main contributory factor to the overweight/obesity issue. To compensate for the loss of taste as flavoursome fat was removed from masses of processed products, manufacturers ramped-up the levels of sugar.
But that’s not all. Excess sugar consumption has also been implicated in:
- Tooth decay
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Joint disease
- Liver disease
- Blood sugar disorders
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
- Other mental health disorders
But before we condemn all sugar, we need to bear in mind that there are many different forms of sugar.
3 Common Sugars
1 – Processed
Definitely the highly processed sugars such as white and brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin and many of its other pseudonyms are the ones to keep to a minimum. Often these are found in refined, packaged foods including confectionery, bakery, cereals and desserts; sugar also pops up in peanut butter, pasta sauces, bread, ready meals and hazelnut spreads.
2 – Artificial
Artificial sugars or sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose have been linked to their own set of health issues and again sneak into a wide range of foods and drinks as a sugar replacement, to cut down on calories.
There is also some discussion as to whether or not these sweeteners activate the food-reward system that ensures you feel satisfied after eating; hence it may lead to over-eating as the brain seeks to fulfil its needs.
3 – Natural
These include whole fruits and vegetables – particularly higher in fruits such as bananas and mangoes and root veggies such as sweet potato and carrots; these natural sources are also good suppliers of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre.
Fruit juice isn’t the same as whole fruit as it lacks fibre; it has got as much sugar as many classical sugar drinks. It is also absorbed very fast so by the time it gets to your stomach your body doesn’t know whether it’s Coca-Cola or orange juice!
I also include honey under this section because it contains many beneficial compounds, especially if it is sourced locally and not subjected to high temperatures. It may be taken internally for its healing anti-microbial properties or applied topically for its wound-healing attributes.
There are other sugars that whilst derived from natural sources, have been so processed that their health benefits are perhaps questionable, for example rice syrup.
3 Thoughts about Sugar
1 – Seasonal
Firstly, our cavemen ancestors only really had access to an abundance of natural sugar during spring and summer, which they ate to build up a fat layer to see them through the winter when there was a shortage of them.
In winter they would be less active and use the stored fat as energy.
Nowadays though, our bodies are accustomed to the availability of sugar all year round and the problem is that winter never comes. So hence our bodies get fatter and sicker, for it is always summer!
2 – Reward System
Secondly, from an early age we associate sweet foods with pleasure foods; as soon as we eat something sweet our brain responds by activating the reward system. When the reward system is activated by sugar we get a rush of brain chemicals that gives us a sense of wellbeing. As babies we are fed our mother’s milk which is naturally sweet and rich in tryptophan which makes serotonin, the feel-good hormone.
As kids, we may have been told that if we ate our dinner we would get dessert or have been given lollies for being well-behaved. Thus, a seed is sown linking sweet foods to feeling good.
3 – The Sports Link
Thirdly, it has become acceptable for big-name companies to spruik their sugar-laden drinks/foods alongside prominent sporting events to align their product with a positive health association. For example, at the 2012 London Olympics Coca Cola was the official soft drinks provider.
The Problem with Sugar
Our bodies are not designed to handle the vast quantities of sugar that is in our standard diet today; our cavemen ancestors only had access to fructose in whole fruits, in amounts that were relatively dilute.
The complications set in when we discovered how to turn real foods which contained fibre, water and other nutrients into pure sources of sugars, for example by refining sugar cane into table sugar. And then we started to consume this and the other sugars in excess. Often, the more we eat, the more we crave and so the vicious cycle begins.
Do you know what to look out for on food labels? Here are some guidelines to help you avoid those hidden sugars:
- Avoid any food or drink that lists sugar as the first or second ingredient;
- Dairy contains 4.7% lactose, the milk sugar that doesn’t contain fructose; dairy products with more than this may well have added sugar.
- Shun products with more than 3 – 6g of sugar per 100g.
- Sugar may be present in one of its other guises, such as dextrose, agave, high-fructose corn syrup etc.
- Sugar is often added to ‘savoury’ items like cook-in sauces, salad dressings, mayonnaise, and marinades, as well as yoghurts and flavoured milks etc.
If you would like help in reducing the amount of sugar you consume or managing your diet, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Author: Beverley Dorgan, BHSc Nutritional Medicine, ANTA.
Beverley Dorgan is a Brisbane Clinical nutritionist with a special interest in how the foods we consume can impact on our mental health from anxiety and depression to OCD and behavioural or learning issues.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.
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- Knüppel A, Shipley MJ, Llewellyn CH, Brunner EJ. Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Sci Rep. 2017;7(1):6287. Published 2017 Jul 27. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7