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Spotlight on sugar

Here’s a prediction from me for 2013: we’ll be hearing a lot more about sugar, sugar-free diets and sugar’s effects this year.

Sugar is once again a buzzword and, increasingly, a baddie, in nutrition and diet circles, from the faddish to the serious scientific community.

The latest from the credible science camp on this subject comes from local researchers at the University of Otago, including lead co-author and Healthy Food Guide Editorial Advisory Board member, Professor Jim Mann from Otago’s Department of Human Nutrition and Medicine and Edgar National Centre for Diabetes and Obesity research. The study, commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and published in the British Medical Journal, looked into what is known about the effects of sugar.

What the researchers found is that there is now enough evidence from the research to show that cutting down on sugar has a “small but significant” effect on body weight. Reducing “free sugars” in the diet led to an average reduction of 0.8 kg (from five studies ranging from 10 weeks to eight months), and increasing sugar intake was associated with a corresponding 0.75 kg increase in body weight (from 10 studies, with two lasting longer than eight weeks). “Free sugars” are sugars that are added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer; plus those naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.

The researchers suggest the weight gain is due to the sugar’s energy content. They highlight sugary drinks in particular, noting that for children, the risk of being overweight or obese increased among children with the highest intake of sugary drinks compared to those with the lowest intake.

Meanwhile, debate is heating up in the scientific community about sugar’s effect on heart disease – while the consensus seems to be that there is not enough evidence to prove a link yet, we can expect to see more about this in the future. Popular theories about sugar being ‘toxic’ or fructose (a type of sugar) making us fatter, faster, are not currently borne out by scientific evidence.

So what does this all mean for us in real life? I think it highlights what we all instinctively know: too much sweet stuff is not a good idea. In particular, sugary drinks are not necessary, and cutting these out is an easy way to cut the sugar in our diets and potentially lose weight as well. For kids, not getting them into a sweet drink habit is an excellent idea – make water the main drink and keep anything sweet for special occasions. Keep sweet cakes, biscuits and sweets to a minimum – apart from the sugar, these often come combined with fat which gives us a double-whammy for weight gain and insulin resistance.

As we’ve said before, we think cutting out all sugar or going on a drastic sugar-free diet is not really necessary, or necessarily healthy in several ways. As with any restrictive diet, focusing on cutting out just one element without thinking about how good the total diet is, can be setting ourselves up for an unhealthy relationship with food. It also doesn’t guarantee you a healthy diet – some sugar-free diets require eliminating fruit, for example, which contains wonderful nutrients and has proven health benefits.

So cutting back on sugar: great idea. Eliminating sugar completely: difficult and not really necessary. And on sugar in general: watch this space.

First published: Jan 2013
Last updated: November 21 2017
Last science review: October 10 2016



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