Sugar - all or nothing?

March 20, 2018

 

Until not so long ago, as many of you may still remember, fat was considered the enemy of all healthy diets. Before that it was cholesterol and before that salt. Now days, the sugar-free diet has blasted onto the health and wellness scene -- and seems to have taken first place in many people’s new year’s resolution (even bypassing reducing alcohol consumption).

 

Sugar-free diets motivate people to avoid refined white sugar (sucrose), natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, refined flours, condiments, soft drinks, sweets and some fruits rich in sugar such as figs, grapes, mango, bananas and more. Some diets also recommend removing or restricting dairy products all together.

 

Those who promote these diets, rightfully stipulate that excessive sugar consumption may lead to obesity and therefore increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancers.

 

It’s indisputable that most of us can do better with less of this white stuff, with the average European consuming way too much of added sugar a day.

 

It’s not necessary to quit sugar altogether to improve your game on healthy eating. Quitting sugar is unlikely to improve your health any more than cutting down on ultra-processed foods, consuming more vegetables, cooking food from scratch and restricting how much superfluous sugar you eat and drink.

 

I find most sugar-free diets confusing and imposing a random set of rules that aren't based on valid scientific evidence. Sometimes, such a restrictive diet can even cause food fear or an unhealthy relationship with food.Until not so long ago, as many of you may still remember, fat was considered the enemy of all healthy diets. Before that it was cholesterol and before that salt. Now days, the sugar-free diet has blasted onto the health and wellness scene -- and seems to have taken first place in many people’s new year’s resolution (even bypassing reducing alcohol consumption).Sugar-free diets motivate people to avoid refined white sugar (sucrose), natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, refined flours, condiments, soft drinks, sweets and some fruits rich in sugar such as figs, grapes, mango, bananas and more. Some diets also recommend removing or restricting dairy products all together.Those who promote these diets, rightfully stipulate that excessive sugar consumption may lead to obesity and therefore increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancers.It’s indisputable that most of us can do better with less of this white stuff, with the average European consuming way too much of added sugar a day.It’s not necessary to quit sugar altogether to improve your game on healthy eating. Quitting sugar is unlikely to improve your health any more than cutting down on ultra-processed foods, consuming more vegetables, cooking food from scratch and restricting how much superfluous sugar you eat and drink.I find most sugar-free diets confusing and imposing a random set of rules that aren't based on valid scientific evidence. Sometimes, such a restrictive diet can even cause food fear or an unhealthy relationship with food.

Steering clear from the diet mentality

The sugar-free diet is restrictive, with lists of "allowed" foods (such as whole grains, blueberries and grapefruits) and "not allowed" foods (such as white bread, bananas and raisins). This unintentionally promotes a what is known as a ‘diet mentality’ which may cause its followers to worry about accidentally eating something that's not on the ‘allowed’ foods list.  People who worry about what they eat are more likely to go on a diet. This may be because either they are worried about their weight, or about the impact certain ingredients have on their health.

 

There’s a lot of research which demonstrates that dieting is not effective over the long term and can lead to greater weight gain over time. also known as the yo-yo effect. The brain interprets dieting and restriction as time of famine, which promotes fat storage for future shortages.

 

Dieting can also be stressful. When we’re stressed, our body releases stress hormones such as cortisol, which may cause the body to store fat, mainly in the abdominal area.

Worrying about food can lead to stress, anxiety and depression, and is one of the defining criteria of the condition known as orthorexia.

 

Orthorexia refers to an unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food. Food considered “pure” or “impure” can vary from person to person. This doesn’t mean that anyone who subscribes to a healthy eating plan or diet is suffering from orthorexia. As with other eating disorders, the eating behaviour involved – “healthy” or “clean” eating in this case – is used to cope with negative thoughts and feelings, or to feel in control. Someone using food in this way might feel extremely anxious or guilty if they eat food they feel is unhealthy. Estimates suggest anywhere between 7% and 58% of the population may have the condition. There are no clear diagnostic criteria, which makes it difficult to measure how common it is.

 

Having said that, however, we do know that 15% of women will experience an eating disorder at some stage during their life. Therefore, we need to ensure nutritional advice, however well-intended, doesn't promote or encourage consumption that may lead to a disorder.

Cutting out the good stuff

Some of the sugar-free diets promote cutting out or restricting some healthy foods and food groups such as fruit and dairy, without any real scientific evidence to support their prohibition. This perpetuates the food fear/dietary restriction cycle and may contribute to nutrient deficiencies, and emotional problems such as OCD and Addiction.

 

These diets sometimes recommend avoiding fruit for a period of time, and then re-introduce a limited list of expensive "super" fruits (such as berries) while avoiding the cheaper "unhealthy" fruits such as bananas.

 

However, fresh whole fruit is a great source of fibre, essential nutrients and antioxidants. Two servings of fruit per day can reduce the risk of developing some cancers, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Most adults in western Europe already consume half the recommended daily amount of fruit, there the advice to restrict fruit even further could result in people missing out on the above benefits.

 

Many sugar-free supporters also avoid plain dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, due to the belief that these contain sugars.

 

The sugar in plain dairy products is the natural lactose (a carbohydrate), which is harmless (unless you’re lactose intolerant). Needlessly avoiding dairy and not replacing with adequate levels of calcium from other healthy sources may increase the risk of osteoporosis.

Substitutions for Sugar

Unsurprisingly, many of the sugar-free recipes use expensive sugar alternatives -- such as rice malt syrup (due to its low fructose content), maple syrup (which is sometimes allowed and sometimes not) and dates – as sugar replacement.

 

However, these are still sugars and contain the same number of calories per gram as any other sugar. These alternatives offer no additional nutritional benefits other than rice malt syrup, which is a useful option only for those with a fructose malabsorption problem, and dates, which contain fibre.

 

People often eat more of the food containing these alternatives under the misconception that it being sugar-free, which could lead to unintentional weight gain. One study found people ate about 35% more of a snack when it was perceived as healthy than when it was seen as unhealthy.

What’s the alternative?

Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and some fruit (fruit is your friend not your enemy), enjoy whole grains, beans and legumes.

 

Most people could probably eat a little less sugar, a little less often, but you don't have to quit it for good to be healthy.  For healthy sugar alternatives see here

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