Diet culture in the UK tells us sugar is bad for us…avoid, avoid, avoid. Sugar makes you fat, sugar is unhealthy. What diet culture doesn’t share is that sugar is actually in most foods.
Cutting out cakes and biscuits doesn’t mean you are cutting out sugar, and in fact, you don't need to cut anything out at all! It isn’t inherently bad for us…in fact, sugar can be a key part of a healthy diet.
The Different Types of Sugar
Firstly, sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in most foods. Understanding sugar is easiest when we view it in 3 categories1:
- Natural sugars are found in foods like raw fruits, brown rice, dairy products like milk and cheese and vegetables. These sugars don’t count towards our daily allowance of sugars, so when we speak about cutting down on sugar, we don’t include these foods.
- Added sugars are usually naturally occurring sugars that aren’t naturally in that specific food product. Yoghurt with added cane sugar or a snack bar with syrup added.
- Refined sugars are the sugars we’re told to avoid - found in milk chocolate, cakes, sugary drinks and sweets.
It is important to note that in food products, naturally occurring sugars and added sugars are usually categorised together, so when you read the grams of sugar on a label, it includes all types of sugar that are in the product.
What’s Wrong With Eating Sugar?
Well, in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with eating refined sugars, eating added sugars is usually okay, and eating naturally occurring sugars is encouraged. Great news, right?
The problem with refined sugars is that usually, the sugar content in these products is far more than we should be consuming. The NHS states that adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day, roughly equivalent to 7 sugar cubes2.
More specifically, the American Health Organisation states that men can have 37.5 grams a day, and women can have 25 grams per day3.
A 12oz can of coca-cola contains 39 grams of sugar, more than the entire daily allowance. 4 If you also have a lunch of a white bread sandwich (1.3 grams of sugar per slice), and a muller corner yoghurt (17 grams of sugar)5 you’ve consumed a whopping 58.6 grams of sugar with just those 3 items.
Sugar, in all forms, can also cause tooth decay. Natural sugars in fruit and veg are less likely to cause damage to teeth as the sugar is contained within the structure, however, when these foods are blended or juiced, the sugars are released which can cause far more damage2.
What Does Sugar Do to the Body?
Sugar gives us energy - it helps to fuel muscles and keep the brain active, as sugar contains calories. 30 grams of sugar is roughly 150 calories, under 10% of your recommended daily intake.
Eating excessive amounts of sugar can make us gain weight, which can lead to a whole host of health issues such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancers, tooth decay and fatty liver disease1.
Why Am I Craving Sugar?
The problem with consuming too much sugar is that it spikes our blood sugar levels, giving us that “high” feeling, followed by a crash in energy levels. Eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine into the brain.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter often called the “happy hormone”. Dopamine is released into the brain when we expect pleasure, so when dopamine is released when consuming sugar, it makes us feel happy6.
The crash that follows leaves us tired and irritable and creates a craving that leaves us wanting more sugar. The “high” feeling can be addictive, which encourages people to turn to sugar to get that high when they lack energy or feel low.
This can create a cycle of addiction; when we feel low, we eat sugar, feel better, then feel low, so we eat sugar…and on it goes.
What Can I Do About Sugar Cravings?
Changing up added/refined sugar for natural sugars is a great way to get that great feeling you’re craving, whilst swerving the health issues associated with refined sugars.
It can be really useful to check the sugar content on the packaging of products you are eating and look at the ingredients to find out where that sugar is coming from.
Bearing in mind the recommended daily intake of sugar, you can make more informed choices about the foods you are consuming.
So, yes, too much sugar can be bad for you, but sugar isn’t bad in itself. It’s just important to be aware of how much sugar is in your diet and where that sugar is coming from. You don’t need to avoid refined sugars altogether… don’t be afraid to treat yourself once in a while!
Moderation is key when it comes to this essential and delicious part of our diet. Keep in mind that too much of anything, even natural sugars, can have a negative effect on the body. The devil is in the dose, not the food itself.