Sugar is the new villain on the nutrition scene, but do we really need to avoid it?
It seems everywhere you turn at the moment people are following a low or no sugar eating plan. No longer is fat the villain in our food, it’s now sugar! So much so, Aussie actor Damon Gameau has even released a documentary about it. Called That Sugar Film, Damon developed his own version of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me where he was filmed eating 40 teaspoons of sugar for 60 days. The sugar he ate didn’t come from unhealthy foods like lollies, soft drink, ice cream and chocolate though. Instead, it had to come from perceived healthy options like yoghurt, breakfast cereals, muesli bars, juices, sports drinks and sauces.
For Damon, it was relatively easy to hit his daily sugar goal, which was above what the average Australian adult consumes and what’s recommended. In fact, it’s likely that he occasionally exceeded 40 teaspoons a day. After just three weeks, Damon is already feeling the force of his sugar-loaded diet, feeling lethargic, moody and just plain terrible most of the time. He also developed the beginnings of fatty liver disease, as diagnosed by his doctor. At the end of the 60 days, Damon increased the size of his waist by 10cm and was mentally unstable thanks to fluctuating blood sugar and energy levels. With all the negative health changes seen in Damon, That Sugar Film definitely leaves you feeling like you need to ditch the sugar permanently. But, does a study of one really prove that sugar is the new evil?
Absolutely not says accredited practising dietitian Kara Landau a.k.a. the Travelling Dietitian! “Sugar appears to be getting a bad wrap at the moment as it provides empty kilojoules. There are also claims that it promotes inflammation in the body, which leads to weight gain and ill-health.” With Damon’s weight gain, one would think that these claims hold up, but according to Kara what we need to consider is the glycemic index of a food (how our blood sugar levels respond after we eat foods containing carbohydrates).
“Foods that have a high glycaemic index [as opposed to how much sugar is in a food] are quickly digested by the body and they set off a range of inflammatory pathways in the body. We need to try to minimise these inflammatory pathways, of which reducing sugars is just one mechanism,” explains Kara.
Even Damon himself says it’s not about going sugar-free – his light-hearted and revealing movie is simply working to raise people’s awareness about how much sugar they are actually eating. The point he is trying to make is no different from dietitians, doctors and other health professionals.
Health professionals as a whole would like to see more people ditch the processed foods and increase their intake of delicious nutrient-rich whole foods. If we did this, our sugar intake wouldn’t be a problem. We would be enjoying small amounts of natural sugars in a package that is combined with beneficial nutrients like fibre or protein. Just the way nature intended.
“As a whole, we still need to make sure that the foods we are eating are nourishing and not merely a transport vehicle for sugar,” says Kara. It’s not about ditching sugar completely – it’s about going for the natural sources and reducing your intake of the added ones.
“Look at the ingredients list and check if the sugars are naturally occurring in the product or whether they have been added. If your food product is full of natural ingredients and has a great nutrient profile like being high fibre, a good source of protein and has a low glycaemic index, then it can still be a great option even if it contains a teaspoon of sugar,” finishes Kara.
About the author
Caitlin Reid is a unique health professional with qualifications as an accredited nutritionist, accredited exercise physiologist and yoga teacher. Caitlin is passionate about all things health and wellness, and keeps up-to-date with the latest health research, which she uses when contributing expert advice to health, fitness, lifestyle and food companies. She is also the nutrition expert for the Women’s Fitness magazine, the dietitian for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and ambassador for Papaya Australia. Follow Caitlin on Instagram @caitlinareid or visit her website.