This article was written by Associate Registered Nutritionist (ANutr) Sophie Gastman, and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.
The world of ‘healthy food’ loves a villain. At one point it was fat, then it was carbohydrates in general, and now it’s sugar’s turn to take the spotlight.
The scaremongering around it has become excessive. Some of it can go as far as making us feel that consuming even just one morsel of the white stuff will send us into a downward spiral of ill health.
What’s even worse is a lot of the anxiety-inducing language around sugar is coming from ‘trusted’ health professionals labelling it as toxic and addictive. Coupled with the food industry’s agenda of profiteering and selling us sugar-free versions of foods and the government enacting a “sugar tax”, it’s no surprise that so many of us are concerned about our sugar consumption.
What Is Sugar?
If you find that your anxiety about sugar is taking up a lot of mental space, understanding what sugar is may help to alleviate some of your anxiety.
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate found in all plants, including fruits and vegetables.
This means that the sugar in our cupboards and the sugar in baked goods is identical to the sugar found naturally in foods like peaches, almonds, and peas!
Sucrose is the chemical name for sugar and consists of one glucose molecule bound to one fructose molecule. These (along with galactose) serve as the building blocks for all carbohydrates. No matter how complex a carbohydrate is, it will all be broken back down into glucose, fructose and galactose in the body.
Simply put, sugar is just a carbohydrate that provides our bodies and brains with the energy they require to function.
‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Sugars
Some of the scaremongering around sugar goes deeper than simply claiming all sugars are bad. Instead, certain sugars are deemed worse than others, creating a hierarchy within the sugar kingdom and evoking even more anxiety around food choices.
For instance, sweeteners such as date syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave, coconut sugar etc. are often touted as better choices than regular table sugar. This is because they are said to be less processed and retain some of their vitamins and minerals.
While it is true that these can be less processed, this doesn’t mean they are necessarily better or healthier. Check out our article about processed foods for more information on this.
These sweet foods also tend to have a very similar calories content to ordinary sugar and the amount of minerals present are insignificant.
Your body won’t know whether it’s just had a spoonful of agave syrup or a spoonful of white sugar (but your bank account probably will!), and it will be broken down and digested in exactly the same way.
You may have heard about controlling glucose spikes in relation to diabetes management. Or, you may have heard about glucose spikes from the social media storm created by the likes of The Glucose Goddess and personalised nutrition companies.
This movement has claimed that glucose spikes in healthy individuals can be responsible for everything from weight gain and acne, to infertility and PCOS. The issue with these kinds of statements is that they are wildly simplistic and often unhelpful.
First of all, it’s important to note that it’s normal for our blood sugars to temporarily rise after eating a meal.
In fact, this is a good sign because it means that the carbohydrates from your meal are being digested. When these carbohydrates enter our bloodstream, the pancreas releases insulin to help the glucose move into our cells, resulting in glucose levels returning back to normal in people with a healthy glucose metabolism.
In terms of the fear around glucose levels shooting up quickly or spiking, again this is normal after eating lots of sugar. In scenarios like this glucose levels will drop rapidly and may leave us feeling a bit tired and hungry, but this is not usually something we need to be fearful of. It’s only a cause for concern when the spikes last for a long time or are causing symptoms such as feeling very thirsty or extreme fatigue.
Some of the recommendations on how to eat to control our blood glucose levels throughout the day can be useful for stabilising energy levels – for example, pairing carbohydrates with proteins or fats, or awareness of glycemic index (how quickly various foods spike blood glucose levels). However, the messaging around this is often alarmist, when in fact there isn’t strong evidence to suggest that people with a healthy glucose metabolism would benefit from micromanaging their glucose levels (1).
Are we becoming so obsessed with the idea of ‘hacking’ our bodies that it’s turning into an unhealthy obsession?
Although individual responses to consuming different foods is an interesting area of research at the moment, we need to consider each individual as a full person when it comes to applying messages like this in the real world. Fearing sugar can be very damaging when it comes to your relationship with food, which may also lead to worsened physical health as a knock on effect.
Balance Is Key
As with most things in life, balance really is key when it comes to sugar, and as with food in general, the best approach is to be flexible. Cutting out sugar entirely will only lead to a restrictive mindset or give it the ‘forbidden fruit’ effect, making you crave it even more and increase the likelihood of entering a binge-restrict cycle. This can also contribute to feelings of being ’addicted’ to sugar. Checkout this article for more information on ‘sugar addiction’.
There are also many other factors that will affect your overall health aside from sugar, for example, sleep, movement, stress, smoking, alcohol etc. Blaming all of our health problems on sugar is a simplistic and misguided approach.
It’s clear that in 2023 we aren’t finished with demonising sugar and the recent ‘cake in the office should be viewed like passive smoking’ statement that made headlines from the chair of the Food Standards Agency is clear evidence of this. However, remember – worrying about every possible grain of sugar inside your food is likely to be worse for your well being than the sugar itself.
Not fearing sugar and being able to actually enjoy it without feeling guilty are vital when it comes to a healthy relationship with food.
If you need any support with working on this, you can find information about our specialist one to one clinic here.
- Holzer, R., Bloch, W. and Brinkmann, C. (2022) “Continuous glucose monitoring in healthy adults—possible applications in health care, wellness, and sports,” Sensors, 22(5), p. 2030. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/s22052030.