At this moment, it seems that sugar has taken over as public enemy number one for our health and waistlines.
If you take a quick glance through the news headlines over the last few years, the topic of sugar in our diets comes up repeatedly with sugar consumption now linked to a whole host of health issues affecting both young and old.
However, is sugar that bad or is it all just media hype?
Before we address that question let us have a quick look at the history of sugar as part of our diet.
History of Sugar
Sugar in our diets has been around for thousands of years and has become an integral part of our culture.
Sugar is required for energy so our desire for it has become part of our nature as we have evolved. The problem is that over the years the availability of sugar has greatly increased and so has our consumption.
If we go back before agriculture, our ancestors would only be able to get access to sugar from natural sources that were available at a particular time and in their immediate area.
So eating sugar would be a very rare treat.
As awareness grew of sugar in nature, especially from the sugar cane, cultivation spread across many cultures and continents.
In fact, by 500BC people in India have learned how to transform the juice of the grass into a crude form of crystal. As trade developed between countries, sugar eventually spread through Asia, Africa and then into Europe by the 11th Century.
In Europe sugar was a pure luxury item only available to the wealthy but with the progress of manufacturing the affordability and accessibility of sugar increased.
Sugar became big business and many economies flourished on the back of sugar production especially in Europe from the new sugar cane plantations created in South America and the West Indies.
The demand for sugar continued grow and especially in Europe in England and France and in fact between the 18 and 19th century consumption in England increased by 1500 per cent as more and more people could afford to buy sugar and sugar based products.
This trend has continued across the world and now most countries have a diet where some form of sugar is hard to escape, as it is not only present in many natural foods we eat but in nearly all processed foods as well.
The world health organisation recommends just 50g per day of sugar or around 10% of daily calories for a normal person yet if you look at the figures for average daily consumption in countries across the world most people are consuming double or even treble this figure.
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The Anti Sugar Argument
This high level of consumption is what has led a number of scientists to argue that sugar has been the main culprit for rising obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates.
One of the most prominent voices on this topic comes from Robert Lustig a professor at the University of California who set out his claims in a video called Sugar: The Bitter Truth that has become a viral hit on YouTube with over 7 million views at this moment in time.
He is convinced that sugar is toxic to the body and that high consumption of it is the main cause not just for rising obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates but is also fueling the increase in cancers and other life threatening diseases such as Alzheimer.
How this happens relates to the breakdown of sugar in the body and the chain reaction this creates leading onto the manifestation of other health issues.
How exactly is Sugar destroying our health?
Most sugar we consume either comes from natural sources such as fruit and vegetables, refined table sugar we use on cereal or in cooking and the sugars found in processed foods such as high-fructose corn syrup.
There is often a distinction made that natural sugars found in food sources are the good sugars while processed sugars such as high fructose corn syrup are bad and are the problem in our diets.
Whatever sugar type you consume ultimately, it ends up as glucose in the body.
No matter if, you eat a chocolate bar or a banana it is broken down into monosaccharide’s, and then turned into glucose. From this point, the glucose travels to areas of the body that require it.
The only difference is how quick this process takes with processed sugars being broken down and adsorbed a lot quicker than say natural sugar found in an apple or potato.
Processed sugars such as table sugar and high fructose corn syrup contain a type of sugar called fructose also found in fruit.
Normal table sugar also known as sucrose is a combination of fructose and glucose.
Sucrose exists in natural foods such as sweet potatoes, melons, Clementine’s, pineapple, beets and even nuts like almonds. Certain processed foods also use sucrose as a sweetener.
High-Fructose corn syrup is also a mixture of fructose and glucose but because it is not a natural substance the fructose and glucose do not have the chemical bond like sucrose so the body can break it down even faster.
So if sucrose found in natural substances is the same as refined table sugar high and has a very similar chemical profile to high fructose corn syrup what is the problem with eating one and not the other?
The issue for the anti sugar group is how these types of sugar are broken down by the body.
When consumed sucrose and high fructose corn syrup divide into glucose and fructose. Glucose as we know is utilized for energy at a cellular level and distributed to different areas of the body.
Fructose on the other hand is not absorbed readily by our cells so it needs to convert into glucose and lactate to for energy. This can only take place in the liver.
The liver is then solely responsible for converting fructose into usable energy for the body.
So as you can imagine if you are eating high amounts of fructose this can put your liver function under a lot of pressure and may interfere with it performing its other vital functions in the body.
It is this constant demand on the liver from consuming fructose that many anti sugar campaigners say over time is leading to host of major health issues.
For example when liver energy depletes too much it can result in the production of Uric acid a cause of Gout, kidney stones and high blood pressure.
The production of Uric acid from consuming fructose is being linked with causing insulin resistance which if untreated can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
In other studies performed with animals and people, excessive fructose consumption decreased insulin sensitivity, increased visceral fat production and raised the amount of triglycerides (a type of fat lipid) which can contribute to heart disease if levels get too high.
As we can see high fructose, consumption may lead to serious health issues if left unchecked so limiting it in our diet is a good move but do we need to eliminate it.
Well first, let us just take a closer look at some of the studies that have condemned fructose.
First, some of the studies included animals, rodents to be precise. Can studies done rats and mice identically replicate what will happen to a person? For example, fructose metabolism in rodents results in over 50% of it becoming fat while in humans only 1% becomes fat.
In fact a recent study concluded that fructose itself is not responsible for the build of fatty deposits around the liver unless it was consumed in high amounts that would create an energy surplus that could lead to health issues.
That is the thing, you have to consume large amounts of fructose for it to become a problem, which for most people they just don´t do.
To strengthen that claim a 2011 study in the United States analysed sugar consumption data from around 25000 people over a 7 year period and discovered fructose consumption was much less than other sugars in their daily diets. On average fructose made up around 37% of daily simple sugar intake.
At this level, the amount of fructose may not be great for your waistline but it certainly does not warrant classification as toxic and an immediate threat to your health.
Although the evidence is inconclusive, as to whether we can lay the blame for rising obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases solely at the door of fructose the message to eat less of it and all types of sugar is an important one.
There is no doubt that if you are eating a diet that contains high levels of sugar than the body can cope with you put yourself at a higher risk of developing problems that are more serious.
Data is showing that daily calorie intake is far too much in many countries than the recommended amounts and many of these extra calories are coming in the form of processed foods and soft drinks.
If you keep consistently eating, more calories than you burn off you will gain fat. This occurs regardless of what foods you are eating.
The issue with eating a lot of sugar and mainly the processed variety is that foods and drinks that contain it are very calorie dense yet easy to digest making it very easy to eat large amounts of them.
This is so apparent with soft drinks and juices. In fact a research published recently claimed that over 180,000 people were dying across the world due to the high consumption of sugary drinks.
Although this figure is quite dramatic, it is easy to see how this could happen.
You can easily ingest hundreds and hundreds of liquid calories forcing the body to deal with huge rushes of blood sugar and not even notice the effect.
Whereas you if consumed the same amount in meal containing a decent amount of fibre, protein and fat you would be full for hours after.
Over consumption is the big problem not the sugar.
The real issue is we are just eating too much crap in our diets and not making enough effort to burn off excess energy.
If anybody is struggling with weight then sugar is definitely one area to focus on but this just part of the issue.
They also need to look at other food and lifestyle choices taken as well.
Cutting back on sugar will help but this should form just one part of a balanced plan that covers all factors to lead a healthy lifestyle.
Eating Sugar can feel addictive because you just want to keep eating more but it is not.
The only reason somebody is eating too much sugar is the lack of discipline and strength of mind to say no.
This can be for a variety of reasons well out of the scope of this article.
But if you are struggling to cut sugar out or really overeating it first look at what is going on in your life than may triggering this issue.
Once you have identified that and started working on resolving your issue will you be able to put together a proper nutrition plan and stick with it.
Do we really need to cut out all sugar to be healthy?
In a nutshell, no.
In my opinion, the evidence is not conclusive, and avoiding all sugar in your diet is extremely difficult and not sustainable.
Do we need to cut down sugar intake?
Absolutely and we need to focus on the processed sources especially in drinks because these are the hidden sugars and calories that people don’t process in terms of their daily consumption.
But more than that people need to get more informed, understand why they are behaving in such a way then take responsibility for their decisions.
Once you do that you can enjoy the pleasures that having a little sugar can bring but without the pain.