Cutting out sugar – yes or no?

Now that January is over, many of you are probably breathing a sigh of relief as you pour yourselves that long awaited glass of wine or reach for the packet of biscuits you’ve been denying yourself while you’ve been detoxing…

But, before you do, take a moment to think about how you felt with less sugar in your diet. More energy? Less tired? Skin looking better? Fewer mood swings? Weight loss? Cutting out sugar can make a big difference to some people.

We’ve all seen the effects on too much sugar on a room full of children at a birthday party, bouncing around excitedly like balloons about to pop, only to crash an hour or so later in tears and tantrums. As adults, we often use it to boost flagging energy levels, and it’s true, it works as a quick fix. But it’s short-lived and you soon slump again, and so it goes on. It’s a habit that’s easy to form and hard to break, and doesn’t do your body any good.

Is any sugar good for you?

Sugar is the building blocks of carbohydrates, and we need carbohydrates for energy. When eaten, the body converts most carbohydrates into glucose (sugar), which is used to fuel our muscles and brain (our body’s biggest muscle!). If we consume more carbohydrates than we need, the excess does not get burnt off, and turns into fat.

Sugar is found naturally in some foods, including fruit (fructose), honey, fruit juices, dairy products (lactose) and vegetables. Other forms of sugar (sucrose) are added as part of the manufacturing process. Sugar is useful in cooking: it helps cakes and bread rise, preserves foods and brings out their flavour, and keeps the colour of fruit by holding water.

It’s not necessarily the sugar itself that is a health problem, but the amount that we consume. One teaspoon of white sugar has 15 calories and one teaspoon of corn syrup (a type of sugar commonly included in processed food) has 20 calories.

The science bit

When the body cannot clear glucose, or sugar, quickly enough, the sugar starts to destroy tissue. This is in essence what diabetes is: the inability to eliminate glucose.

According to some studies, sugar can be as addictive as cocaine, and like any drug, addiction brings its own problems. Sugar and alcohol have similar toxic liver effects. It has been shown that damage to the liver can occur even without weight gain or excess calories or weight gain.

It seems that sugar addiction (and alcohol addiction) may be genetic. Studies show that those who have genetic changes in a hormone called ghrelin consume more sugar (and alcohol) than those who had no gene variation.

Foods that are rich in fibre, fat (the good kind!), and protein help make a person feel full. Sugar, on the other hand, does not sate the appetite in the same way, and although it satisfies a craving, it doesn’t last very long.

Sugar in fruit and juices, waters

Soft drinks are responsible for most of the added sugar in the average person’s diet.

Manufacturers often hide how much sugar is actually in a product, sometimes by calling it something different (like corn syrup) or use fructose, to fool you into thinking that it is “better sugar” as it’s from fruit. However, while the sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay and obesity, because the sugars are contained within the structure of the fruit, when fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released. Once released, these sugars can damage teeth, and you end up consuming more sugar than you realise. Similarly, when fruit is dried, some sugars can be released. Dried fruit also has a tendency to stick to teeth, which can contribute to tooth decay too.

Why cut out sugar?

Far from being the energy booster most people expect from it, sugar actually causes depression, lack of energy and moods swings. If you cut it out from your diet, after the initial shock to your body (and mind, as you free yourself of the addiction), the change to mood and physical wellbeing can be remarkable. You look healthier, feel brighter and sleep better.

Research has shown that people who drink two cans of sugary fizzy drinks daily are three times more likely to be depressed and anxious than those who drink less.

Aside from the excess weight gain caused by eating more sugar than you need, consuming too much sugar can also cause wrinkles! A 2009 study found that glucose consumption accelerated the aging of cells in the body. Not only that, a 2012 study found that excess sugar consumption was tied to deficiencies in memory and overall cognitive processing.

What should I eat instead of sugar?

While we should reduce the amount of sugar in our diet, we should base our meals on starchy carbs. There is strong evidence that fibre, found in wholegrain versions of starchy carbs for example, is good for our health. Combine that with good fats and plenty of protein, and you’ll have a balanced diet.

Avoid fizzy drinks totally (the ‘light’ versions may not contain sugar, but the other added ingredients can be just as bad for your health). Drink water, or if you do like to drink fruit juice, dilute it with water so that you are consuming less sugar.

Stick to freshly prepared food, where the sugar is more likely to occur naturally than in processed food which will usually have added sugar (and refined, the worst kind, at that). That way you know what you are consuming, and are less likely to fall victim to hidden ingredients.

If you think this all sounds tough, you’re not alone. Here’s Suzanne Moore, writing for the Guardian, with an honest account of what the early stages can be like.

And if you really can’t keep off the sugar, at least keep up the exercise in one of our classes!