Let’s Not Sugar Coat It: Why and How You Should Be Limiting Sugar in your Diet
We go nuts for donuts… and other sweet treats! Sadly, sugar intake (although it has recently stabilized) remains excessive in North America. Canadians of all ages are getting an average of 21% of their total energy intake from sugars (both natural and added) – that’s 116 grams per day! (1) On average, 12% of total energy intake comes from added sugars, with higher intake common among teens. (1) Eating too much sugar can have negative effects on your health, especially in the long term. So, like all foods, sugar should be eaten in moderation.
I should clarify, sugar doesn’t need to be avoided entirely! Our bodies use sugar (in the form of glucose) for energy. And I definitely have my own sweet tooth. Even in naturopathic medical school, I pleasantly shocked classmates by being the first to eat a chocolate bar in class. I love a good donut (sour cream plain and apple fritters are my favourites) and I bake often; but I’m also aware that diet has tremendous effects on your health, and unchecked sugar intake can result in negative health outcomes.
Diets high in sugar, particularly added sugar (sugar or sugar substitutes added to foods for flavour or preservative action), are associated with increased risks of certain health problems. (2) Too much sugar in someone’s diet can lead to:
Energy crashes (3)
A sugary snack gives you a boost that’s usually followed by a crash since the sugar rushes into your blood stream but is used up quickly, leaving you as tired as before (if not more).
Heart disease (2, 4)
High sugar intake promotes the production of triglycerides and low-density lipid molecules, associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk. This link is especially strong for women consuming large amounts of soft drinks.
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) (2, 5)
Excessive sugar prompts the liver to develop harmful fatty deposits called NAFLD.
High sugar intake is associated with being overweight, likely due to the connection between insulin resistance and obesity.
Sugar addiction (6, 7)
Regular sugar binging activates some of the same pathways in the brain as other addictive behaviours such as the release of dopamine and opioids. And sugar withdrawal is a very real thing!
and sluggish immune function (8)
High sugar intake weakens the white blood cells’ ability to effectively fight infections.
Not to mention, if you’re eating a diet high in added sugars you’re likely eating processed foods rather than nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits (which are protective to the heart, liver, brain, immune system, and waistline). No single nutrient is the root of all evil, and sugar is no exception, but it’s likely not helping you.
While many studies demonstrate some negative effects of sugar, the results may underestimate these effects since most studies only monitor the participants for a matter of weeks. And, like other dietary and lifestyle habits (eg. smoking), it generally takes more than a few weeks for negative effects to materialize.
So, how can you limit your sugar intake and promote better overall health?
Limit your added sugar consumption by cutting out (or at least cutting back) your processed food intake – cakes, pastries, soft drinks, candies, packaged snacks, granola bars, sugary cereals, etc. Cooking your own meals and snacks will automatically cut down your sugar intake and increase your intake of vitamins and minerals. Win-Win! (Or Win-Win-Win for The Office fans out there!)
Note: Sugary drinks are the single largest source of added sugar in a child’s diet. There’s a reason a lot of the research looks at soft drink consumption when looking to measure the health effects of sugar.
Some foods are less obviously sugary. Fruit juice is a big culprit, especially for kids. Fruits have a lot of naturally occurring sugars, and this is ok when the fruit is eaten whole since the sugars come paired with fiber which slows down the absorption of the sugar into the bloodstream. Fruit juice, on the other hand, contains all the sugar with none of the fiber, causing dramatic (and undesirable) blood sugar spikes.
Natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup are great alternatives to regular white or brown sugar, but they too need to be eaten in moderation.
White coloured foods – white bread, white rice, white potatoes – typically break down into sugars very quickly once they’re eaten. Whole grain alternatives break down slower due to the accompanying fiber content which slows down the absorption of sugar into the blood stream (like it does in whole fruits vs fruit juices), making them great alternatives.
How fast or slow a food elevates blood sugars is called its glycemic index (or glycemic load when the amount of the food is taken into account). Lower glycemic loads are desirable when trying to regulate blood sugars. Pairing any carbohydrate or sugar-rich food with foods that contain PROTEIN, FAT, OR FIBER slows down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and lowers the glycemic load.
Sometimes sugar is in disguise on food labels. Here’s a fairly extensive list to look out for (9):
High fructose corn syrup
Technical Terms (-ose or -ide ending): dextrose, fructose, lactose, maltose, galactose, sucrose, ribose, saccharose, glucose, monosaccharide, disaccharide, polysaccharide
Natural Sugars: agave, coconut nectar, coconut sugar, date sugar, maple sugar, maple syrup, honey, fruit juice, fruit, cane juice, molasses, rice malt, sorghum syrup, brown rice syrup, treacle
Sugar Alcohols: erythritol, glycol, glycerin, iditol, isomalt, lactiol, maltitol, mannitol, ribotol, sorbitol, xylitol
Artificial Sweeteners: aspartame, acesulfame-L, Nutra-sweet, Equal, Saccharin, Splenda, Stevia, Sucralose, Sweetleaf, Sweet-n-Low, Truvia