Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar was one of the year’s Australian publishing sensations, spawning a mini-industry telling people how to kick the white stuff. The former Cosmopolitan magazine editor and erstwhile sugar “addict” says she once consumed the equivalent of 25 teaspoons a day, much “hidden” in foods and drinks.
A health and life crisis made her re-evaluate her lifestyle and ultimately recognise a link between her OTT intake of the sweet siren and years of mood disorders, fluctuating weight, sleep problems and thyroid disease.
By radically moderating her sugar consumption “I lost weight and my skin changed, it cleared,” she says, “but I also started to heal. I found wellness and the kind of energy and sparkle I had as a kid.” Her personal experience resulted in the book, interactive website and cult following.
As with any apparent diet “miracle”, I Quit Sugar has already generated a counter-movement with nutritionist Cassie Platt soon to publish her own book, I Didn’t Quit Sugar.
It’s created a stir in the sugar bowl with Wilson blogging in her book’s defence that “I don’t suggest quitting all sugars. I certainly don’t advocate quitting glucose. I’m very clear: fructose is the issue, mostly in the form of sucrose. I agree, quitting all sugar, and carbs, could create health issues, such as hair loss.
“Yes, yes, yes, the title of my book is I Quit Sugar. But when we say “sugar”, most of us are referring to sucrose or table sugar (the stuff they put in doughnuts), right? And within about three words of opening the book I highlight I’m referring to fructose specifically.”
Okay, so that’s two women’s experiences. But what are we talking about, really? How much sugar do those of us not committed to a radical lifestyle change (but who’d still like to lose weight, feel and look brighter etc) need to give up? What are “good” and “bad” sugars”? After all, fruit has sugar and fruit is good for you, or so we’ve been told for generations.
Is sugar really the devil – or “Satan’s crystals” as some colourful detractors have dubbed it? There was a time when it was just blamed for rotting your teeth and making you overweight.
Now, over the past decade, sugar has been deemed a culprit behind everything from obesity to feeding cancer cells to ageing the body (particularly the skin) at an accelerated rate (glycation), heart disease, dementia, macular (eye) degeneration, chronic kidney disease and failure, and high blood pressure.
There’s always impressive-sounding studies and statistics to support such claims. If you’re not a scientific expert, though, it’s hard to digest what’s best for you.
The biggest problem with sugar is that, these days, it’s everywhere, whether you know it or not, and it comes in far more processed forms than nature intended. It’s to be found in such sources as Macca’s French fries, breading on most packaged and restaurant foods, hamburgers sold in restaurants to reduce meat shrinkage during cooking, canned salmon (before canning, it is often glazed with a sugar solution), cured/sliced meats such as ham, turkey and chicken, bacon and canned meats, stock cubes (which usually contain MSG as well), many peanut butter brands, dry cereals and carb-dense foods, particularly highly processed ones such as commercial bread and rice.
A telling comparison:
- In 1822 Americans consumed 45gm of sugar every five days, or the amount of sugar in a can of Coca Cola.
- In 2012 Americans consumed 756gm of sugar every five days, or 58kg of sugar a year. That’s the size of some adults!
When you eat sugar – and, especially, too much of it – your body can deal with it one of two ways:
- Burn it for energy. Great if your body is firing on all cylinders and you have a fast metabolism.
- Convert it to fat and store it in your fat cells. With today’s stressed lifestyles and diets, there’s more scope for fat storage. Excess sugar is used to provide the energy our body needs rather than drawing on our fat stores.
When your pancreas detects a rush of sugar, it releases the hormone insulin to deal with the blood sugar spike. Insulin helps to regulate the level of sugar in the blood; the more sugar in the bloodstream, the more insulin is released. Insulin helps store glucose in the liver and muscles as glycogen and in fat cells.
If too much insulin is released, blood sugar drops below normal levels causing hypoglycemia – essentially a sugar “crash”. Our bodies respond by craving sugar and this is where the “addiction” cycle can come into play. We consume more sugar and the process starts again. The more severe the blood sugar spike, the more insulin required. This means it becomes easier to skip using sugar as energy and go straight to extra insulin and fat storage.
We’re not genetically designed to consume the amount of sugar we’re currently eating. For that reason, our brains get the “happy feeling” (eg. spike of feel-good chemicals such as serotonin) from sugar that we could otherwise get from exercise.
So is eating less sugar the answer? Actually, it’s only part of the battle.
You’ve probably heard of the Glycaemic Index. It’s the calculation of how quickly a particular type of food increases your blood sugar level, on a scale from 1-100 (100 being pure glucose).
Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, from the University of Sydney’s School of Molecular Bioscience and Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders, also author of the best-selling Low GI Diet franchise, talked to She ‘Said’:
How bad really is sugar for you?
No worse than any other source of carbohydrate (starch, glucose etc).
What are the side effects (apart from weight gain) of eating too much sugar?
Some studies suggest that it increases the level of triglycerides (fats) in your blood and liver, but this type of study usually involves a supra-normal dose. When more realistic doses are used, there’s no difference.
What are the side effects of having no sugar at all?
Studies suggest that people who avoid sugar end up eating more saturated fat. It’s called the sugar-fat seesaw and it’s well documented in all population groups.
When people become overly zealous about deleting all sugar (indeed, any type of food) from their diet, can it can cause feelings of deprivation that eventually make you obsess over and crave the “forbidden fruit”?
Absolutely agree. And the liking for sweetness is programmed into human brains. Many primates are “frugivores” – they get the majority of their calories from fruits.
What are the benefits of reducing sugar in your diet?
If you get currently more than 25 per cent of your calories from refined sugars (the average is actually 10-12 per cent), then cutting down may improve the nutritional value of your diet. But it’s no guarantee. A completely sugar-free diet if often high in refined oils, refined starches and alcohol, which are also empty calories.
How much sugar should an average person consume each day and from what sources?
Most authorities say 10 per cent of your calories can safely come from refined sugars – that’s 200 calories in a 2000 calorie diet, and that’s 50g of sugar, or 10 teaspoons. My recommendation would be to use this sugar to increase the palatability of bland but wholesome foods such as muesli, porridge, yoghurt or jam/honey on wholegrain bread.
Is there such as thing as “good” and “bad” sugars?
No. Nature provides a mix of sugars, including sucrose, glucose and fructose. Some ignorant people think glucose is better than fructose but that’s wishful thinking. If anything, glucose alone would increase your risk of diabetes.
What is your advice about finding balance in your diet overall, and keeping your sugar intake at acceptable levels?
Eat a higher-protein, lower GI, Mediterranean diet because this will help to control appetite. Go to bed early, get a good night’s sleep and get 30 minutes of exercise a day. THEN allow your appetite to guide food intake. Eat for both pleasure and wellbeing.
If someone is keen to give such a low-sugar diet a go, how would you recommend they go about it?
They should seek advice only from people with university qualifications, preferably with APD after their name (Accredited Practising Dietitian).
Is sugar the enemy, or do you indulge your sweet teeth? How do you feel about sugar? Tell us in the comments!
Jenni Gilbert is a longtime journalist with a passion for sourcing and sharing information about how to look and feel better, inside and out. Jenni’s resume includes Editor-in-Chief of New Idea, launch editor of Good Medicine magazine, London correspondent for Fairfax’s The Sun newspaper – she even covered the wedding of Charles and Diana! – Deputy Editor of Who, senior writer for Woman’s Day, News & Features Editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly and much more. Family, friends, her cat, travelling, Pilates, yoga, holistic health and anti-ageing treatments are what makes Jenni’s life go round.