Put down that donut or slice of cake – a growing body of research is making it very clear that our sugar-laden diets could be setting us up for some serious health problems.
Why is sugar the new evil?
Sugar has a negative impact on so many of our body’s organs, it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s begin with the brain. When we eat sugar, our brains produce huge surges of dopamine, a feel-good chemical. It’s similar to the way our brains react to substances such as heroin and cocaine. This makes us crave more sugar, potentially amplifying its negative health risks.
It can also impact our mood – when we eat sweet foods such as lollies or biscuits, our blood sugar levels rise quickly. This gives us a burst of energy – sometimes referred to as a sugar high. The problem occurs when those blood sugar levels drop, leaving us feeling jittery and anxious. If this happens repeatedly, it can have an effect on our mood. Some studies even suggest that high sugar intake can lead to an increased risk of depression.
And it turns out your mother was right – sugar will rot your teeth. The bacteria that cause cavities thrive on the sugar that lingers in your mouth after you have eaten sweet foods.
But the biggest issue with sugar is that it can increase inflammation throughout the body, causing a host of reactions that are potentially damaging for our health.
Sugar stimulates the production of free fatty acids in the liver. When the body digests these free fatty acids, the resulting compounds can trigger inflammatory processes. Inflammation is not all bad – it’s part of our body’s healing process. But chronic low-grade inflammation has been linked with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and allergies.
For example, the extra insulin caused by too much sugar can affect your arteries, causing their walls to thicken and become more inflamed, increasing your risk of heart failure, heart attacks and strokes. One study indicated that people who get 25 per cent of their calories from added sugar are twice as likely to die of heart disease than those who get less than 10 per cent of their total calories from added sugar.
Insulin is made by your pancreas when you eat. But if you eat too much sugar, your body stops responding correctly to the insulin and your pancreas has to produce more. Eventually your overworked pancreas will break down and your blood sugar levels will rise, setting you up for type 2 diabetes and, you guessed it, heart disease.
Diabetes that is not kept under control can result in kidney damage.
Too much sugar can also lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (an excess fat build-up in the liver), inflammation and scarring of the liver. This could cut off blood supply to the liver, which can develop into cirrhosis. In the worst cases, this could leave someone needing a liver transplant.
Excess inflammation can also exacerbate joint pain and make your skin age faster. Plus, excess sugar can even impact a man’s ability to get an erection, having a negative impact on your sex life.
What sugary foods do we need to watch out for?
Most of us are aware that foods such as cakes, chocolate, lollies, soft drinks and ice-cream are laden with sugar. But it’s a sneaky substance – it also hides in places people don’t expect it to be.
It pays to look at the sugar content of concentrated fruit juice, sweetened yoghurt, cereals, canned and packaged food, sauces, energy bars and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
Low-fat foods are another trap – often the sugar levels have been increased to compensate for the lack of flavour caused by cutting down the fat. Don’t be fooled by this tactic – the sugar is worse for your health than the fat it replaces.
Also beware of trading sugary foods or drinks for those made with low- or no-calorie sweeteners. Consumption of sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose have been linked to weight gain, not weight loss. They were also tied to a higher risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart attacks and stroke.
It’s important to learn to read the nutritional panel of the foods you choose.
Ingredients are listed on labels by order of weight, which means the closer an ingredient is to the start of the list, the more of it is included in the food. Sugar can come under a variety of labels on the ingredients list. Manufacturers might use names such as glucose, sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, golden syrup, maltose, maltodextrin or disaccharides, just to name a few.
Food that has 15g of sugar or more per 100g is considered high in sugar. Anything under 5g of total sugar per 100g is low.
The World Health Organisation recommends people eat no more than six teaspoons of added sugar every day. To put that into context, a 330ml serving of Coca-Cola has 7.3 teaspoons of sugar and the same-sized serving of Red Bull has 6.6 teaspoons.
Is all sugar bad?
Everyone needs some sugar in their diet – it is the main source of energy for your cells. Your blood normally contains about 5g or a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in it.
So not all sugar is bad – it’s the added sugar we are trying to reduce. Added sugar is different from the sugar that occurs naturally in foods such as fruit or milk. Natural sugar comes with vitamins, minerals and nutrients that help offset some of the negative aspects of the sugar content. For example, fruit has fibre that causes our body to absorb sugar at a slower rate. The sugar in wholefoods, such as fruit or vegetables, don’t cause the brain to release such big surges of dopamine so are less likely to cause sugar cravings.
Sugar is a key ingredient in many of the fermented foods that are so beneficial to our health. When making kombucha, it feeds the scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). The scoby breaks down sucrose into fructose and glucose, which feed the yeast, which feeds the bacteria, which feed us!
The small amounts of residual sugar left in the kombucha after the fermentation help to make the healthy acids palatable and provide food for the good bacteria that are still alive in the bottle. Without the sugar, there is no fermentation, and without fermentation there is no good bacteria to feed your body.
When it comes to sugar, like most aspects of good health, the key is balance. Rather than trying to eliminate it from your diet completely, look for ways to reduce those added sugars that do far more harm than good.