Is cutting out all sugar really healthy?


Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


17 April 2019

What is sugar exactly? 

Sugar, in the simplest terms possible, is a carbohydrate that your body converts into glucose, or blood sugar. This glucose then passes from your intestines directly into your bloodstream where it is either immediately used as a source of energy or, thanks to the help of insulin, stored as glycogen to be utilised by your body at a later stage.

Back in our old ‘hunter-gatherer’ days, sugar was a primary source of energy for our bodies, but, unlike today, our early ancestors had to rely on natural sources of sugar, such as fructose, sucrose and lactose, in order to keep their energy levels ticking over. Fruits and some vegetables were their main source of the sweet-tasting carbohydrate and they usually only managed to obtain these in modest amounts. 

Today, the real problem with sugar arguably lies in our consumption. Despite advice from experts to up our intake of fruit and veg, most of us won’t be making the most the natural sugar these foods can offer. Instead, most of the sugar we consume is heavily processed and refined and added inorganically to our food. It has very little, if any, nutritional value, and we’re consuming far, far too much of it. 

How much sugar should we be eating?

There’s a lot of debate over how much sugar we should be ingesting each day. Currently, our intake of refined sugars is supposed to be limited to 30g a day; to put this into perspective, many popular fizzy drinks already contain this amount of sugar in just one can!1 In the USA alone, most adults consume around 76g of sugar a day – over twice the recommended amount.2 

Understandably, this mammoth sugar intake is having some correspondingly huge repercussions for our health. In the UK, it’s estimated that by 2025, more than 5 million people will be affected by type-2 diabetes while problems like childhood obesity are already at critical levels, with almost a third of children between the ages of 2-15 thought to be obese in England.3,4 

Sugar is a leading underlying factor in both of these health problems and that’s to say nothing of its role in cardiovascular disease! As a nation, we have a real problem with sugar, or more specifically, refined sugar, so is it really any wonder that sugar-free diets are becoming an ever increasingly popular option for those looking to avoid these dire health consequences? 

Are sugar-free diets really the best option?

Sugar-free diets are now cropping up left, right and centre, with endorsements by the rich and famous on their efficiency and amazing benefits for our health. How accurate are these claims, though, and is cutting all forms of sugar out of your diet really the answer? 

The bad

Given the popularity of going ‘sugar-free’, it’s no surprise that there’s an entire plethora of diets out there that vary in strictness. If you’re following a strict sugar-free regime then this can pose problems as, in addition to curbing your intake of refined sugar, these diets may also prohibit certain types of fruit (such as bananas, potatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes) as well as unrefined carbohydrates.

This is a shame as bananas, potatoes, sweet potatoes and unrefined carbohydrates do have an important place in your diet. These types of foods are normally rich in nutrients and fibre, and without them, your diet can very quickly revolve around large intakes of protein and healthy fats.

The other issue with sugar-free health regimes is that they can sometimes sway followers towards foods that are specifically branded as ‘sugar-free’, when in reality these substitutes are just as damaging for your health as their sugar alternatives. 

Instead of sugar, these usually contain more artificial ingredients, such as sweeteners and preservatives, that can also have a less-than-happy impact on your health, as I explore in my blog, ‘The truth about artificial sweeteners’. 

The good

Despite these problems, there’s no doubting that cutting our sugar intake can definitely have some positive benefits for our health. It can help to stave off the symptoms associated with fluctuating blood glucose levels, such as fatigue, irritability and light-headedness. In the long-term, you might find that you have more energy, you sleep better at night and that your gut is in better condition too!

The biggest benefit associated with going sugar-free, though, is that it forces you to seriously examine how much sugar you usually consume and makes you much more aware of the sugar content of ordinary food products. Most of us are probably aware that junk foods such as ice cream, chocolate and cake are rich in sugar, but what about more benign food products, like tomato ketchup, tinned soups, white bread or even flavoured water?

If you’re going to be adhering to a sugar-free diet, then it really forces you to become not only more aware, but also more label savvy. You can to get creative with your diet and the foods that you’re eating and this is definitely not a bad thing.

The middle ground

If you’re familiar with my blogs, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of diets that are too restrictive – everything in moderation! That being said, there’s no denying that, as a nation, we really need to take a serious look at our sugar intake.

My top tips for managing your sugar intake

1. Don’t shun fruit

Fruit may contain natural sugars like fructose, but that’s no reason to shun this important food group! In fact, if you find that you’re starting to feel the urge for something sweet, fruit is a good substitute. Remember, fruit was designed to be our primary source of sugar and, in addition to this carbohydrate, may also contain a whole host of nutrients, ranging from immune-boosting vitamin C to antioxidant vitamin E. The fresher your fruit, the better, so don’t be afraid to add it into recipes for a healthier, unrefined twist!

2. Experiment with spices

Sugar is often added to enhance the sweetness of dishes, but spices can make a great substitute. Cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg all bring their own unique flavours to dishes and can be used as an alternative to sugar, even helping to settle fluctuating blood glucose levels. That’s why you’ll find spices on my list of ‘8 foods that can help to lower your blood sugar levels’.

3. Become more label savvy

One of the main issues with refined sugar is that it can be sneaky and often crop up in places you wouldn’t expect. Even supposedly healthy foods, such as nut butters, pre-bottled smoothies and low fat yoghurts, can contain heaps of sugar so it’s really worth keeping an eye out and being more thorough with food labels. Don’t take anything at face value and, even with healthy foods, be sceptical. If the ingredients list goes on forever and mostly contains ingredients you don’t understand, then this is a good hint that it’s been heavily processed and should therefore be avoided.

4. Fight those cravings

Sugar cravings can arise for a number of reasons: low blood glucose levels, sleep deprivation, PMS or even dehydration can sometimes stimulate the urge to tuck into sugary snacks and carb-heavy foods. These can be incredibly compelling and difficult to resist and definitely shape our eating habits. That’s why it’s important to address these if you are planning on reducing your sugar intake – fortunately, I have written a few blogs on the subject:

What stops sugar cravings?

What do your food cravings really mean?

5. Don’t be fooled by substitutes

Finally, if you are trying to cut down on sugar, don’t be fooled by substitutes and supposedly ‘healthy’ alternatives. It might be tempting to move straight from putting sugar in your coffee to adding artificial sweeteners but, as I’ve mentioned before, these come with their own set of problems. It’s also worth mentioning that most ‘low fat’ options out there are usually loaded with sugar so here, it might just be better to opt for smaller amounts of the full fat product!

1https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/how-much-sugar-should-i-eat

2https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-sugar-per-day#section2

3https://www.diabetes.org.uk/professionals/position-statements-reports/statistics

4https://fullfact.org/health/childhood-obesity/

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