THE BLOG

Why Sugar Isn't the Bad Guy

03/03/2014 17:00 GMT | Updated 03/05/2014 10:59 BST

Just as fat was demonised in the 1980's sugar seems to be taking a bashing as dietary zealots whipping boy. With sugar avoidance becoming the latest media headline it's compelling that sugar now plays the role that saturated fat once played and it is now responsible for the obesity epidemic that was once fats responsibility.

With what has been published you never really hear about the positive side of sugar or how it is used in the human body. Overwhelmingly the opinion of newspapers and numerous documentaries is that sugar is evil incarnate and will get you addicted, hooked on the giddy feeling of euphoria that only milk chocolate can give before you are sat in a pile of high sugar energy drinks looking for your next hit if you can get your obese frame out of bed.

The alarmism highlights that sugar correlates with a number of diseases from diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. However all of these conditions are multi-factorial in cause. You cannot attribute their development purely to sugar intake. Lifestyle and other dietary behaviours are also responsible.

What also is clear is that over the last 30 years activity has decreased as we undertake more sedentary occupations while total calorific intake has increased by over 400 calories daily. Sugar consumption although being blamed for the increase in people's weight has only risen by a few calories on average since the 1970s. In fact the consumption of fats, oils, dairy fats and flour and cereal products have increased by about 180 calories which is about 4.5 times the average increase in the intake of sugar. In summation- we are not eating excessively more sugar than what we were consuming 30 years ago.

This point highlights that modern lifestyles indicate we are eating more of everything and we are less active than the previous generation. It's a bit hard then to primarily blame sugar for this issue as we do not see an exact change in sugar consumption in line with weight gain.

Let's look at sugars role in the body. All things will kill you if you over consume them- sugar included. So will water, but the volumes needed to be consumed for it to be poisonous to end your life are pretty extreme. A 200 pound man would need to consume six pounds of pure sugar to kill himself. While I agree that there are negatives about overconsumption of sugar there are negatives about overconsumption of everything- sugar therefore is as poisonous as water, should this be the media story- I am not too sure?

Sugar is one of our main sources of energy when broken down in to glycogen. We hold about 350g of muscle glycogen, 90g in the liver and about 5g circulating in our blood. We replenish it when we eat. Predominantly we break sugar down from carbohydrates (not just sugars) so grains, potatoes, vegetables, pasta and rice among other sources provide our dietary intake to keep us well stocked up on energy. Sugar is just classified as a carbohydrate- we evolved to use sugars as an energy source, completely ignoring it as a way of producing energy you could argue is like driving a car with three wheels- it's possible but it's not exactly going to be a comfy ride.

When we consume carbohydrates insulin is elevated (this will depend upon the type of food consumed and what it is consumed with). Insulin is associated with driving energy towards storage and hence it has an association with an increase in stored fat. This twinned with the lack of production associated with 'over production' being a symptom of type two diabetes.

This is where the correlation of high sugar equals high insulin resulting in high body fat comes from. That perhaps maybe the case if you walk around eating sugar all day or eating an excessive amount of carbohydrates for prolonged periods where insulin is chronically elevated.

Guess what though insulin is only elevated post feeding in healthy individuals, your body stores fat as well when insulin is low, elevated insulin suppresses your appetite and those of you who thought you were safe on your high protein diet- guess what? Protein stimulates insulin increase. Sugar or carbohydrates have been demonised but simply the science is not there as correlation does not necessitate cause especially when you look at the sugar/elevated insulin/ fat gain hypothesis.

"What is a healthy sugar intake?" is perhaps the most prudent question. In our pursuit of dietary fads we have completed lost sight of what is enough and what is excessive. In my next post I will discuss what is sensible and what is excessive and why the term 'natural' sugar really does not mean anything.