Recently, the word sugar has become comparable t o a swearword. Give us agave syrup, maple syrup, rice malt syrup, even coconut sugar, but for heaven’s sake, not plain old sugar. Sugar is blamed for all kinds of symptoms of ill health from feelings of sluggishness to skin issues to problems with our digestive system. The word sugar seems to almost be a synonym for the word sinful and blamed to be the root of all evil. The recent fanaticism surrounding the avoidance of sugar has become normality for many of us, even though being hooked on avoidance of it can almost be compared to an addiction in itself. Is this the way to go though in order to eat and live healthily and happily?
Is the consumption of small amounts of sugar in our diet really that bad for us that it’s worth the feelings of guilt and the effort of total avoidance? Sugar, scientifically, refers to any simple carbohydrates; mono- and disaccharides that occur naturally in milk, milk products, fruit, and vegetables. Sugars can also be added to food, most commonly to sweeten the product. Carbohydrates, in general, together with proteins and fats, are the three energy supplying macronutrients that our bodies need daily for optimal health. Following digestion and absorption into our bodies, all carbohydrates are converted to glucose, an essential fuel for our muscles. These vital components of the body cannot function without glucose, and although our bodies can make glucose out of protein and fats when in starvation, this doesn’t happen without risks and side effects. Therefore, carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of glucose.
It is true that if we consume too much sugar in the long term, it’s not great for our health. It is also true, that if we constantly consume excessive amounts of sugar, especially in the forms of soft drinks, we may end up gaining weight. Similarly, it is also a fact, that if we continuously consume too much sugar on a daily basis, we probably have an unbalanced diet that leaves us feeling unwell with symptoms far from desirable, most likely as a result of being deficient in minerals, vitamins, fibre or other nutrients.
However, the same principle applies if we consume too much of anything. Indeed, if we eat too much of any kind of carbohydrates, we may not be eating enough of one of the other two energy supplying macronutrients: fats or proteins. Similarly, if we are having too many fats, or proteins, we may not be getting enough of the other two.
The truth is that we should be consuming only a small amount of added sugars, those that do not occur in our food naturally. But is it worth cutting out all sugars religiously and feeling bad if we do not succeed? If we cut out fruit, which is sweet due to the sugar fructose, we will also be cutting out an enormous amount of wonderful vitamins and minerals, and the marvellous fibre that will help us shield from many chronic diseases such as cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Dried fruit and fruit juices often get a bad name for their sugar content, but why do we forget about their very rich profiles of minerals and vitamins?
It is recommended by the Australian Dietary Guidelines that we do obtain most of our daily carbohydrates from complex carbohydrates. These are generally our whole grain, unprocessed carbohydrate sources. It is recommended that we eat more of them as they generally keep us fuller for longer, and provide us with long lasting energy, fibre and minerals. The energy (kilojoule) content is still the same as in simple carbohydrates per gram, and evidence shows that there is no difference between a gram of a simple sugar or a complex carbohydrate in terms of their possible contribution to weight gain or loss. Even the fashionably avoided simple carbohydrate fructose, has been shown to only contribute to weight gain if it is eaten in excessive quantities, in the same way as in any other energy giving nutrient. According to science, it has nothing to do with the way it is metabolised in our body, but solely to with do with the simple fact that if we keep eating excessive quantities of it to the extent that our calorie intake is higher than what we burn, we will put on weight, as we would with any other types of food. More information on studies on this can be found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23321486.
We know that an enormous amount of added sugar in our diet isn’t great for us, but why the need for obsession or strict rules? Why is it that nowadays the topic called sugar is so black or white, when what our bodies call for and require is an overall balance?
Fundamentally, our bodies and minds need a balance of all nutrients and this can mean eating a range of all kinds of enjoyable food. It is not a small amount of sugar that needs removing from our diet but the guilt associated with it, if enjoying an overall balanced diet of good, nutritious food. We need to remove restricted diets that demonise specific food groups. It is okay to enjoy the celebratory chocolate cake or an occasional ice cream cone without guilt when you know it’s not a part of your daily diet. Enjoying all types of food is fine when you know you are enjoying a good balance diet overall. Balance is the key, and what we should all be calling and aiming for in a bid to be healthy and well.