Is Sugar Really that Bad For You?

Blog By Evelyn Vo

We have to admit, sugar does not have the best reputation. Despite being delicious, sugar has often been demonised by media personalities who argue that it makes us fat, sick, that it is a poison and is slowly killing us. That said, the majority of us regularly consume sugar. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians consume about the equivalent of 14 teaspoons of white sugar per day. Sugar cravings are often responsible for our late night binges and the inevitable sugar crash afterwards. The picture looks very bleak, but is sugar really that bad for us? Are the media personalities right in their crusade against sugar?

The low down on sugar

The first thing we need to realise when we talk about sugar is that there are several different types. Not all sugar is created equal. There are sugars that are bad for us in moderate to high amounts and other sugars that are healthy in higher amounts. For example, there are sugars that occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, milk, and whole grains, and are key to a healthy balanced diet. Cutting down on these types of food deny your body of vital nutrients for health.

Sugar becomes a problem when we regularly add refined sugar to our diets. Refined sugar belongs to a group of sugars called free sugars. These include any sugar that we add to food and includes both refined sugars (e.g., white sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar, etc.) and natural sugars (e.g., honey, maple syrup, fruit juices, etc.) Free sugars are often added to foods we eat by manufacturers to enhance the flavour, texture,colour, and overall shelf life of their products.

Here lies the problem with the media personalities that attack sugar. They argue that we should take sugar completely out of our diet, or, at least, remove all added sugar. They fail to make the distinction between good and bad sugars and often neglect the importance of moderation.

What is moderation?

The term moderation is used a lot in nutritional information. But, what does moderation mean to you? Does it mean the same thing to your best friend? How about your doctor? I think you’ll notice that we all vary in what we consider to be “moderate” use. Moderation can mean different things to different people. When it comes to the consumption of sugar, the World Health Organization provides a good recommendation. They suggest that adults and children aim for an intake of free sugars that equals 5% of their daily energy requirements. In other words, they recommend about 25 grams of added sugar per day, which equates to about 6 teaspoons of honey or white sugar.

This sounds like a lot! But, many of us consume more than this, even if we don’t add sugar to our coffee each day. the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that many of us consume 105 grams per day. So, where is this extra sugar coming from?

Unfortunately, the awesome convenience of processed or packaged foods carries a significant cost. You guessed it, a large amount of added sugar. It is also tricky to determine the amount of free sugars in processed or packaged goods. This is because the Nutrition Information Panel that is located on all packaged foods in Australia does not differentiate between naturally occurring sugars and added free sugars.

If you’re interested in figuring out how much added sugar would equal 5% of your daily intake, the first place to start is by calculating your average daily energy intake. This can be provided by your Nutritionist or you can get a rough estimate from the Eat For Health website. Once you have got your average daily energy intake, calculate 5% of that intake and then divide it by 17. The resulting number will be the grams of added sugar You should aim to consume.

Be an informed consumer

Have you ever found a name on the ingredient list that sounds like sugar, but you’re not sure? I certainly have and that is because there are lots of different names for added sugar in packaged foods, many of which may be refined or artificial sugars. You can find out what they are by clicking on this >>link.

Also remember that not all foods with the same amount of sugar are equal. You can choose foods that have more nutrients with the same amount of sugar. For example, flavoured yogurts contain sugar, but you also get the benefit of calcium and protein, compared to a snickers bar, which have very few, if any, additional nutrients.

Are there healthier sugars than others?

No, despite the different colours and flavours, the nutritional values of white, brown, raw sugars are very similar. Some sugars have been spruiked, often by media personalities, as containing more vitamins, minerals or antioxidants than others. Often they are true, but the amounts are so miniscule that we’d have to consume tons of sugar to get any benefit from these “healthier” options. I would advise against this.

The bottom line

While the media personalities want to help you, making sugar out to be a demon is not helpful. You don’t need to avoid sugar to be healthy. Here is a more helpful approach: Sugar, like many nutrients, foods, and behaviours, can be harmful if used in excessive amounts. Arm yourself with knowledge, make wise food choices, and, fill your diet with plenty of nutrients to balance your sugar consumption. You can learn how to moderate your intake by reading nutrition labels, understanding your energy intake, and, creating a meal planner.

As a finishing point, you’ll notice that many of the media personalities who are anti-sugar also tend to cook their own food. Unless they are selling a food product, they don’t rely on processed or packaged foods. This isn’t by coincidence. If we chuck out their anti-sugar crusade, there is actually a good and simple message in their actions: make your own food and control your diet to achieve your goals. That’s a message I believe in.

Evelyn Vo is a nutritionist who practices at The Nutrition Space (Heidelberg and Melbourne CBD)

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