Talking Wellness: The bittersweet truth about sugar

Finding a place for sugar in a healthy and balanced diet

Numerous studies have shown an association between sugar consumption and increased cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer. These findings have sparked a reduction in or elimination of sugar intake in some individuals’ diets. However, not all sugar needs to be avoided.

Sugar is a crystalline carbohydrate that yields a sweet taste. As we all know, sugar is frequently added to foods for flavour enhancement by ourselves and by manufacturers. Naturally occurring sugars that are present in fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, eggs and nuts, and should not be cut out. In fact, a high intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Therefore, natural sugars can be incorporated into a healthy and balanced diet.

Problems with sugar consumption arise when too much sugar is added to food. Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco, claims that we are becoming addicted to the “toxic” substance, sugar. According to Dr. Lustig, the food industry is hooking us on sugar because they know it will make us buy more.

In a 15-year study published in 2014, Dr. Frank Hu, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that people for whom added sugar made up 17 per cent to 21 per cent of their caloric intake had a 38 per cent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease in comparison to those for whom it made up only eight per cent of their caloric intake. The increased risks for heart attack and stroke are linked to higher blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes and fatty liver disease – all of which can be brought about by a high intake of added sugar.

Artificial sweeteners have been used in replacement of sugar to offer the desired sweetness without unwanted calories. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame and sucralose, as well as one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia. For the most part, studies leading to these FDA approvals have ruled out the risk of cancer. However, these studies were done on a small scale, so the effect of large amounts of these sweeteners over a long period of time is unknown.

In a multiethnic study of atherosclerosis, which is a disease in which plaque builds up inside your arteries, found that daily consumption of diet pops was associated with a 67 per cent greater risk for Type 2 diabetes and a 36 per cent greater risk for metabolic syndrome. Artificial sweeteners may not be a healthy alternative to sugar in our diets, but they can serve as a means of transitioning to a reduction in added sugar intake.

Sarah McGeachy, a fourth-year biology student, said, “I am well aware of the health risks of consuming too much added sugar. However, when I am drinking a glass of juice, for example, I do not think that that glass of juice could put me at greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.” McGeachy speaks to the daily struggle of finding ways to exercise dietary restraint.

“You don’t hear of people dying from high sugar intake, but this reality is masked by the health problems in which it causes,” McGeachy continued. “For example, having a heart attack could be linked to high blood pressure and weight gain that originated from a poor diet that included a lot of added sugar over a long period of time.” McGeachy is making the point that it is difficult to stop yourself from having a glass of juice when it is not immediately putting you at risk for greater health issues.

Easy ways to reduce your intake of added sugar include cutting back on the amount of sugar you add to food and drinks like coffee, tea and cereal; replacing sugary cereal with oatmeal and fruit; reducing the amount of sugar you use while baking by one third; choosing the food you buy based on added sugar content; and drinking sugar-free instead of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Generally, we are aware that high sugar intake should be avoided, but many of us continue to drink pop, eat candy and add sugar to our coffee. We should all try to be more conscientious of what we are consuming. If you are interested in professional dietary advice, the Mt. A Wellness Centre ([email protected]) has a dietitian available for appointments upon request.

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