Balance the sugar scales

Sugar intake

Everybody agrees that excess sugar is bad for you – but does that mean all sugar is bad?

While consuming excessive quantities of sugar can cause health problems, is it wise to remove it from your diet altogether?

Julie Martin reveals that some types of sugar are better than others and explains how much sugar it’s safe to consume.

Words: Julie Martin

In today’s diet-obsessed society, there are many differing opinions on the role of sugar in our lives. Some nutritional experts suggest avoiding it at all costs; others take the line that it’s okay – and even necessary – when consumed in moderation. Either way, there is one point on which all parties tend to agree: excessive consumption of the sweet stuff is not a good thing.


What is sugar?

Sugar is a carbohydrate that provides a source of energy in our diet. The body breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars, such as glucose, that can be readily used for energy.

There are many different types of sugars in foods. Sugars occur naturally, such as in fruit and dairy products, and are also added to a wide variety of foods. Sugar comes in many different forms, including white, raw or brown sugar, honey and corn syrup. All sugars are, generally, equal in their energy content and have 16kJ (kilojoules) per gram.


How much added sugar is acceptable?

A moderate amount of sugar can be included in a healthy, balanced diet, with ‘moderate’ defined as 10 percent of your total energy intake per day1. One teaspoon of sugar added to porridge is quite acceptable, owing to the high nutritional value of this breakfast cereal, whereas soft drink usually contains high levels of sugar – a regular 600ml bottle of soft drink contains up to 16 teaspoons of sugar1 – and consumption of these drinks should be kept to a minimum.

Is sugar addictive?

In research studies, rodents have shown addictive behaviour to sugar; however, there are no human studies that support the hypothesis that it may be physically addictive or that addiction to sugar plays a role in eating disorders2.

Sugar and our health

There has been much debate about the link between high sugar intake and being overweight or obese. A recent Australian study analysing the trends in obesity and sugar consumption over the past 30 years found that, even though the prevalence of obesity has increased threefold since 1980, our per capita consumption of sugar has decreased by 23 percent3. This suggests that we need to consider our total energy intake and the nutritional quality of our overall diet in order to maintain a healthy weight in the long term, rather than focus on single nutrients alone3.


Will reducing sugar intake help you lose weight?

While sugar does contribute to the energy density (number of kilojoules) of foods and drinks, it contains fewer kilojoules than fat. However, it is easy to overindulge in foods and drinks with a high sugar content because of the low satiety of these foods1. Therefore, cutting out foods and drinks that contain sugar will help you reduce your total kilojoule intake. This, in turn, will lead to longer-term weight loss4

Removing natural sugars from your diet, thus eliminating nutrient-rich fruits and milk, is not a sensible solution. Sugar, as a nutrient class, does not contribute any more to obesity than an excess of fat or other carbohydrates4 and is therefore not something to fear. So, enjoy the sweeter things in life but, as with any other indulgence, do so in moderation.



References: 1 Better Health Channel, Fact Sheet – Sugar (2011):  2 Benton, D., (2010): ‘The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders’. Clinical Nutrition, p288–303. 3 Barclay, A., Brand-Miller, J. (2011): ‘The Australian paradox: a substantial decline in sugars intake over the same timeframe that overweight and obesity have increased’. Nutrients (3), p497–504. 4 The Conversation (2012): ‘Monday’s medical myth: sugar is to blame for our obesity epidemic’.


Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.