Sugar intake: from science to society

1st November 2016
Granola bars raspberries yoghurt sugar

It’s hard to avoid sugar in today’s world. Whether it’s cake at parties, desserts after meals, or an ice cream in the park – there’s a lot of social pressure to eat what everyone else is eating. Here our dietitian Monika talks about how best to control sugar intake.

When it comes to eating sweet foods, I try to remember one simple scientific fact – the dose makes the poison. I choose to have small portions, find out a little bit more about the food being offered to me, and then decide whether I’d like to have some more. I do my best to walk the line between making a healthy choice, and a choice that will allow me to fully participate in life.

What’s the science?

Different types of sugar are metabolised differently in our bodies and can have different effects on our health and functioning. Glucose, for example, is the form of energy we were designed to live on. Every cell of our body, every bacterium, and every living microorganism on the planet uses glucose for energy.

When you consume fructose, however, 100% of it goes straight to your liver to be metabolized before it can reach the rest of the cells in the body. Eaten in excess, it overloads the liver and can be toxic. This can lead to long term health problems including gout, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and liver disease.

It isn’t that fructose itself is bad – it is the massive doses the body is exposed to that make it dangerous. In vegetables and fruits, it’s mixed with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and beneficial phytonutrients, all which moderate the negative metabolic effects. The problem lies in its high quantities in processed foods.

Processed foods contain refined forms of sugar that contain high doses of fructose. These refined forms include the much (negatively) publicised high fructose corn syrup (containing 55% fructose and 45% glucose), and table sugar (sucrose – containing 50% fructose and 50% glucose).

So what’s the problem?

Over the years, low fat recommendations have led to a dramatic increase in sugar consumption around the world. Excessive amounts of sugar in processed food have been overwhelming supermarkets in the western world. Even foods that are considered “healthy” can contain worrying amounts of added sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

It’s important to distinguish between natural sugars and added sugar in foods. For example, a small pot of plain yogurt has about seven grams of sugar in the form of lactose, a natural sugar found in dairy. On the other hand, a fruit flavoured yogurt may contain up to 19 grams of sugar, 12 grams of which is added sugar. This equates to eating a small pot of plain yoghurt with a tablespoon of sugar.

The main problem with sugar is the fact that our livers have a very limited capacity to metabolize it. All the excess sugar is metabolized into triglycerides and free fatty acids, which are stored as body fat around our organs and within the arteries. This can lead to chronic metabolic diseases, from obesity and type 2 diabetes to hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

A piece of cake

It’s hard to escape the sugary world that we live in. We do need to relax and let go. Food connects us with others. During meals with friends and loved ones we need to decide whether joining in with the social norm outweighs the nutritional value of the food that we eat, and sometimes it does.

We do, however, need to be careful not to let social pressure drown out our internal wisdom that helps us make healthy food choices.

Life is short. We need to do our best to be healthy, but equally importantly, we need to stay connected to the ways of the world, and to the ones we love.

Professor John Yudkin was a British physiologist and nutritionist, and the founding Professor of the Department of Nutrition at Queen Elizabeth College in London. Since 1957 he was making the argument that overconsumption of sugar is dangerous to health. He wrote several books, including “Pure, White and Deadly: The Problem of Sugar”, an internationally recognised title, in which he explained how sugar consumption was a factor in the development of conditions such as dental cavities, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

In one interview, Yudkin’s granddaughter said that although her granddad would always try to limit his sugar intake and wouldn’t have it in his tea, he would never say no to a homemade piece of cake!


Top tips for reducing sugar socially:

  1. Let your friends and family know that you want to make healthy food choices without isolating yourself because of how you eat
  2. Find creative ways to say no to highly processed food, without offending, upsetting or alienating anyone
  3. Watch your portion sizes!

And of course, take your own home cooked food to social occasions – with the help of Cook&Count you can know the exact nutritional information, including sugar content, of what you’re eating!