Sugar – should we stop eating it?

Everyone’s talking about sugar at the moment. It comes in the wake of media reports of US researchers describing sugar as ‘toxic’, and stories of seemingly miraculous weight loss occurring when people cut all sugar from their diets.

At the most extreme end of the scale, several scientists have called for sugar to be regulated as a harmful substance like alcohol and tobacco. So should we all be getting on the no-sugar bandwagon?

It seems all nutrition experts agree that too much sugar – particularly the added sugar found in highly processed foods – is not good for anyone. But it’s useful to understand some context before we do anything extreme.

There is some interesting research going on into sugar and its effects. The findings so far seem to suggest, but not prove, a link between excessive sugar intake and chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity and insulin resistance (a precursor to type 2 diabetes). Critics have pointed out that much of the research has been on animals, and both these and the few human studies have had subjects consuming vast amounts of sugar in forms that are not readily available in real life. Research is ongoing, and fascinating. But right now all the scientific community seems ready to agree on is that more research is needed.

In the meantime, what are we to make of the ‘cut out all sugar’ diets? Our experts agree it’s a good idea to minimise the added sugar in our diets, and doing this will almost certainly have an effect on weight, since sugary foods tend to be energy dense. This is especially true if you’re eating a lot of sugary foods and drinking sugary drinks to start with.  But demonising one particular food, no matter what it is, is not really helpful or sensible. The reasons people are overweight are complex, and rarely due to over-consumption of just one thing. And if we simply concentrate on eliminating one element from our diets without making sure the rest of what we eat is as good as it can be, we run the risk of being no healthier at all in the long run.

In health, as in many things in life, it is human nature to look for a magic solution; a quick fix. When it comes to weight loss we tend to love rules, and if they seem very simple – cut out all sugar – even better. It’s a lot simpler and more dramatic than ‘eat less and move more’, or ‘everything in moderation’. But I feel like we’ve been here before. Remember Atkins and the other low-carb diets? Or the extreme low-fat diets of the ‘80s? My feeling is that anything extreme is not sustainable, and we tend to end up back where we started, with the weight back on. Also worrying, is that cutting out all sugar is restrictive and difficult, and could encourage an unhealthy relationship with food. As happens when we concentrate on restricting anything in our diets, we focus on what we ‘can’t’ have.

What we do agree with the no-sugar advocates about is that sugary drinks are no-one’s idea of healthy food, and that a diet of fresh, whole foods with lots of colourful fruit and veges and a minimum of processed foods is ideal.

But long-term health – and keeping weight off long term – is not about avoiding one food completely. It is about eating a wide variety of good food, in reasonable portion sizes, every single day for the rest of your life. Get everything else right, and a small sweet treat occasionally is not going to kill you.