Over the past couple of years sugar has received a lot of bad press. Is it fair and if so why? Unfortunately yes it is fair, there is substantial evidence that too much sugar is bad for us. Nutritional advice is based on information gained from studies that take place both in the lab and through observation. Observationally we know that people with high sugar intake are significantly more likely to be obese; obese people are more likely to have chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and some cancers. While in the lab studies have identified sugar as being inflammatory and that inflammation is the root cause of the chronic disease and cancer.
We have evidence whatever way you look at it. So how much is too much? Guidelines have recently been lowered. The World Health Organisation and the recommendation in the UK is a maximum of 5% of calories deriving from sugar. This is free sugar (added sugar) rather than intrinsic sugar that is part of foods such as milk. 5% really is not very much at all and is really quite difficult to keep below if you are consuming any type of processed food. It equates to around 28g a day (7 sugar cubes). This is half a tin of baked beans and half a jar of pasta sauce. But where the real dangers lie are in biscuits, cakes and drinks. A slice of Starbucks Cookies and Cream cake has 70g of sugar, that is 2 ½ times the recommended daily sugar intake. Also don’t be fooled by what appears to be the healthier option, always read the label – the carrot cake still has 62g sugar. Epidemiology studies have shown the strongest link to be between sugary drinks and obesity. Drinks don’t really fill us up and can be very high in sugar; a can of coke has 35g of sugar, a Monster energy drink 60g.
But is it our fault that we consume too much sugar? Yes and no. We ultimately have control over what we consume but some studies have concluded that sugar is addictive. And even more addictive when combined with saturated fat. It is thought that sugar over stimulates reward centers in the brain. When we consume sugar dopamine (a neurotransmitter) is released creating pleasure.
Because eating sugar has been a pleasurable experience we are encouraged to do it again – eat that second biscuit. High sugar consumption dulls the receptiveness of dopamine receptors, so a bigger sugar hit it needed to experience the same pleasure leading us to crave more and more sugar. Like any addiction we need to make an effort to ‘kick the habit’.
So unfortunately for long term well being we do need to make a conscious effort to limit sugar in our diet.
Next week we will be looking at the links between agonist drugs and compulsive eating.