It's found in supermarkets, in restaurants and in our homes. We eat it everyday, feed it to our families - most of us can't live without it.
For years we thought that fat was the enemy when it came to our diets, but following recent news it seems that the real threat to our health is in fact sugar. Yep, apparently the sweet stuff is to blame for an ever-growing number of obesity and diabetes cases in the UK (a burden of £5 billion a year which could grow to £50 billion by 2050 if something isn't done) but want to know the really scary part? Many of us, whilst we think we're being good, could be consuming way more sugar than we even realise.
There's a lot of confusing and misleading information out there, but all we really want to know are the facts so that we can look after ourselves and our families in the best way possible. If sugar is something to watch out for then we want to know, so that next time we're in the supermarket, trolly in hand and a list of things to buy as long as our arm, we can make the best decisions for ourselves and the rabble at home...
What is sugar?So, err, what actually is sugar? Well it's a carbohydrate, and is generally found in three forms: glucose, fructose and sucrose.
Glucose: Found in all living cells on the planet, our bodies are able to produce glucose and burn it as energy or convert it into glycogen (liver and muscle fuel). This is known as blood sugar.
Fructose: Sugar that occurs naturally in fruit, our bodies, unlike glucose, do not need fructose. It also occurs naturally in cane sugar and honey, and is incredibly sweet.
Sucrose: Commonly known as table sugar, sucrose comes from sugar cane or sugar beets and is made up of glucose and fructose. The sugar we generally consume is just pure refined sugar with absolutely no nutritional value.
Why is sugar bad for us?Fatty liver: In our bodies, sugar is broken down into glucose and fructose. Our liver can handle certain amounts of fructose, which isn't a problem if we only eat a little (from fruit, for example), but if we overload the liver with fructose our liver will turn it into fat. Continuously eating a lot of sugar and overloading the liver with fructose can eventually lead to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.
Type II Diabetes: Many studies have shown that when we consume too much sugar, the cells in our bodies stop working as they should and become resistant to insulin. This is really bad for us because insulin controls the amount of glucose in our bloodstream and too much glucose in the blood can be highly toxic. As insulin resistance gets worse, the pancreas can't keep up with making enough of its own insulin to keep bloody sugar levels down, which leads to Type II Diabetes.
Cancer: Insulin is one of the main hormones that regulates the growth and multiplication of cells, and when this is uncontrolled it causes cancer. Not only do scientists believe that having constantly high levels of insulin can contribute to cancer, but that eating too much sugar and the metabolic problems this causes can lead to inflammation - another cancer cause.
Obesity: Fructose stops the hormone leptin sending messages to our brains to tell us we already have fat stored in our fat cells, so we don't get the message that we should stop eating. Basically, because of the effect sugar has on hormones and the brain, it massively increases the risk of being overweight or obese.
Tooth decay: And don't forget that sugar is, of course, really bad for your teeth as it can cause tooth decay brought on by feeding harmful bacteria in your mouth. Yuk!
Ok, it's not good for our health, but why is sugar so dangerous right now?This is the very real outcome of too much sugar, but why is this happening when we all know sugar isn't good for us? Well, there are two reasons.
Firstly, sugar is thought to be highly addictive. Some scientists believe that sugar can cause massive dopamine release in what's known as the ‘reward' part of the brain, so that those who are particularly susceptible to addiction can become addicted to sugar, leading health experts to label sugar as ‘the new tobacco'.
And secondly, sugar is difficult to avoid as manufactures have hidden it in so many foods to make products more appealing. They're also able to disguise how much sugar is in something on the packet by using different names for the sweet stuff inside. Here are just some of the words manufacturers use for sugar:
High-fructose corn syrup
Are some sugars worse than others?Refined sugar and processed foods are the worst - they are the most harmful and therefore the most important to get rid of from your diet.
Foods with a high Glycemic Index are bad for us because the higher a food's rating on the index, the quicker it increases our blood sugar level. These are generally simple carbohydrates like white bread, white rice and chips.
What about fruit?Ok, yes fruit does contain (natural) sugars. But when we eat fruit we not only consume fructose but fibre, vitamins and minerals, which our body needs. And compared to refined sugar, fruit can cause less of a blood sugar spike. Some fruits are higher in sugar than others, like bananas, pineapple and watermelon. Dried fruit, especially dates, cranberries, raisins and prunes, are also best to avoid as the drying process concentrates the sugars and many dried fruits have added sugar.
Opt for low-sugar fruits, such as apples or berries, instead.
Is artificial sweetener ok?New research has suggested that our body detects artificial sweeteners in the same way as sugar. This is because artificial sweeteners stimulate the same receptors that real sugar does and may actually cause you to absorb more sugars, triggering insulin production and turning sugar into fat.
What about honey? That's natural isn't it?A study into the sticky stuff shows that ‘honey improved blood lipids, lowered inflammatory markers, and had minimal effect on blood glucose levels.' Along with that, honey resulted in a lower blood glucose spike compared to other types of sugar.
So how do I control the amount of sugar I eat every day?If you want to make a significant difference to your diet and therefore your health, you will need to cut down on (and eventually cut out)refined sugar and processed foods, the main culprits being:
Foods with high-fructose corn syrup (pickle, relish, ketchup, jam, salad dressings)
Tinned fruit in syrup
White pasta, bread, rice, bagels and wraps (basically anything with white flour in it)
Reading the packets on the foods you buy is key and makes a huge difference to the levels of sugar you consume from your everyday foods. Be savvy when you shop - the difference in levels of refined sugar between one brand of cereal bar and another can be as many as five teaspoons of sugar. You can allow yourself healthy carbohydrate-rich foods such as low-sugar fruit, brown rice, oatmeal, a little honey and potatoes. Of course you still need to treat yourself, so try substituting refined sugar in your cooking and baking for healthier alternatives. And of course, don't forget to eat lots of fresh vegetables too!
What to rememberAlthough sugar is natural in that it comes from a plant, the way it makes our bodies behave isn't natural, causing spikes of energy that can make us feel high and then low very quickly. Your energy levels should be constant throughout the day and that's why it's important to reduce sugar in our diets.
Sugar, in all its forms can cause lots of medical problems, but by replacing food that create massive blood sugar spikes with natural sugars like honey, you'll find you feel better throughout the day.
If you think you're addicted to sugar, it's important to gradually withdraw it from your diet to prevent your body crashing. Why not remove one food at a time from your diet, so why not stop adding that teaspoon of sugar to your tea, or swap your sugary supermarket morning cereal with natural porridge and a drizzle of honey?
Where to next?