Is Sugar Evil?

24/03/2014 11:51 GMT | Updated 20/05/2014 10:59 BST

It seems like sugar is this years hot topic. Last year it was the 5:2 diet that was getting all the attention and now it's ditching the sugar. The World Heath Organisation has suggested that the recommended maximum daily intake of sugar should be halved, stating that we should be aiming for sugar to be no more 5% of our calorie intake for the day. I have several issues with that statement, but before I get into them I'll also add that the recommendations state that the source of the sugar that should be limited includes sugar from sources such as honey, fruit juice and fruit concentrate. 

So is sugar really that evil?

To answer that question, we first have to define what we mean by 'sugar'. Technically, most carbohydrates are sugars in a chemical sense - from bananas and sweet potatoes to apples and mango etc. Milk and dairy products also contain some sugar in the form of lactose. Even whole grains are broken down in the body to simple sugars. Then of course we have refined sugar and the products it is found in, for example packaged cakes, biscuits, sweets, soft drinks etc. 

For me, the key difference here is nutritional value. While a banana may contain sugar, it also contains some fibre, vitamins and minerals like potassium. The same can't be said for a can of Coke. 

Raspberries

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As refined sugar and the products you find it in are usually very low in nutritional value, I would agree with the WHO's guidelines of reducing them, however it's not just as simple as that. For a start, the recommendation for sugar to be 5% of total calorie intake meaningless to most people. Unless you're tracking everything that passes your lips using MyFitnessPal it would be very hard to determine that. I can also see why they include more natural forms of sugar in that recommendation, however all most people see is the headlines - 'smoothies are full of sugar and bad for you' and then use it as an excuse to justify choosing a can of coke. I've actually heard people saying that. Yes, fruit smoothies might have a high sugar content, but at least they have some nutritional value, the same of which can't be said for fizzy pop!

I am also concerned at the impact this demonisation of sugar will have on our children, young girls in particular. We are just recovering from fat phobia, do we really need people to have a sugar phobia too?

Yes, sugar is not a healthy food, and an excess of it, even from natural sources may not be best for our health. However, I have always maintained that no food should be demonised to such an extent, rather people should be educated properly, instead of just reading the headlines and getting the wrong end of the stick.

For most of us we do need to keep an eye on our sugar intake, but with an approach of balance rather than 'all or nothing'. Some people certainly do better with a much lower sugar intake, for example I've worked with women with PCOS who have benefited from a low sugar approach. I've also worked with people with sugar addictions - something which is becoming more and more common. For some, excess sugar can play havoc with their skin and hormones. For weight loss, keeping an eye on sugar, even from natural sources can be a sound approach. But, if you generally tolerate sugar well, natural foods like fruit in their whole form should not be avoided. 

Arnhem Market 047

image via morguefile

For me, I know that I am generally fine with naturally sugary foods like fruit in relative amounts. I try and keep dried fruit, fruit juices and shop bought smoothies to a lower level and I do make an effort to keep an eye on the amount of processed sugar I eat because I do feel the effects when I over indulge. I also enjoy using more natural sweeteners in moderation for baking instead of refined white sugar, but still like to keep them to a reasonable level. Another approach I sometimes use is to eat naturally sugary foods with a source of fat or protein which helps to lessen the impact of the food on my blood sugar. Nuts and yoghurt with fruit is a favourite of mine.

The best way for most people to approach this comes back to good old common sense and balanced healthy eating. Eat mostly whole foods in their most natural form, such as whole pieces of fruit instead of fruit juice or dried fruit, while keeping processed and refined sugar foods to a minimum.

What are your thoughts on sugar? How does sugar affect you? What do you think about the demonisation of certain foods?