Sweet talk

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

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?

There is insufficient evidence to recommend an exact intake of added sugars suitable for the whole population. The Australian Dietary Guidelines states that good health can be achieved without the addition of sugars to the diet. Added sugars relate mainly to the problem of dental carriers, and for those with weight problems may contribute to excess calories in the diet, especially from sugar sweetened drinks, and therefore sugar sweetened foods and beverages should be limited in the diet.

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.

However, a recent American meta-analysis has shown the link between sugar sweetened beverages is related to the risk of diabetes, the metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease4.  Fructose and/or high fructose corn syrups are commonly used sweeteners in the US, and are not commonly used in the Australian food supply5. Sugar sweetened drinks are the largest source of sugars in the Australian diet, with consumption highest in adolescents and children.

Current Australian Dietary Guidelines supports the limitation of foods and drinks containing added sugars including confectionary, sugar sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, and energy and sports drinks. It is therefore recommended to choose water, unsweetened coffee or tea in place of sugar sweetened beverages, choose and eat fruit rather than drink fruit juice or fruit drinks, and if you do choose sugar sweetened beverages, reduce your intake to include small amounts infrequently5.

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. Nutrient density may also be compromised by a high intake of added sugars5.  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 loss6.

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. So, enjoy a balanced diet and try to limit added sugars in discretionary foods such as sweet biscuits cakes, dessert, and confectionary and sugar sweetened beverages. 

References:

  1. Better Health Channel, Fact Sheet – Sugar (2011): betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Sugar
  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. Diabetes Care, Volume 37, April 2014.
  5. National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Dietary Guidelines 2013.
  6. The Conversation (2012): ‘Monday’s medical myth: sugar is to blame for our obesity epidemic’. Retrieved from theconversation.com/mondays-medical-myth-sugar-is-the-main-culprit-in-obesity-6078
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.