Sugar has recently been strongly linked to diabetes, obesity and weight gain, and there is no doubt that a high intake of sugar and sugar containing foods can contribute to weight gain. However, does sugar deserve the ‘poison’ reputation that it has acquired in recent times?
Why sugar can cause us to put on weight
Sugar contains calories, thus, as with any food, if we eat too much of it we will gain weight. To maintain weight we need to burn off the same amount of calories as we are consuming from food, so if we eat more than we burn, weight gain will follow.
Sugar and sugar containing foods can be particularly problematic in this area as they are generally the types of foods we crave and may even become ‘addicted’ to, so it is easy to overeat them and therefore consume too many calories.
Certainly a lot of people have reported losing weight after eliminating sugar from their diet, which is to be expected as they are likely to also be decreasing the calories they are eating as well.
The other problem with sugar and sweet foods is that many of them provide calories in the form of sugar, but very little other nutritional value. Processed foods such as cakes, candy and even some bread contain a lot of sugar, but almost no vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Refined sugar consumption is also thought to contribute to the development of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes as it increases the levels of insulin in the blood. High levels of insulin also encourage the storage of fat which contributes to obesity.
Sugar in its natural state leads to big spikes in blood glucose levels – followed by a quick drop, which leaves you hungry and craving more sweet foods. This can also contribute to overeating and in turn obesity, but it should be remembered that any carbohydrate containing foods that are high GI will have this effect and it is not only sugar, but other forms of highly processed carbohydrates which need to be limited.
Americans have a high intake of sugary food and drinks, although there is some evidence that whilst obesity rates are increasing, the intake of sugar is not, suggesting that there are other factors at play in the development of obesity and sugar alone cannot take total blame.
Why sugar is not the only thing that will make us put on weight
Although sugar is definitely a source of calories and can have a negative effect on our health and weight when consumed in excess, there are plenty of other things that have been associated with the growing levels of obesity in our society.
A lack of physical activity means that we burn less calories than we did in the past, whilst high intakes of processed foods that are not only high in sugar but also in fat, particularly trans and saturated types has probably contributed to some degree in many populations as well.
Although a diet containing moderate levels of healthy fat is now considered healthy, it is still the nutrient with the highest amount of calories per gram and therefore can be a major consideration in weight gain if consumed in large amounts.
Factors such as increased portion sizes and high intakes of high sugar and alcoholic drinks are also likely contributors, and a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diets of many individuals may also result in poor health outcomes and increased levels of obesity.
When considering a healthy diet to avoid weight gain, it is important to look at your diet as a whole and focus on all improving all aspects on a daily basis rather than just eliminating one nutrient.
Why not all sugar is bad
Whilst sugar is unlikely to ever be considered a healthy nutrient, given the lack of nutritional value in its pure form, sugar is often found in many foods that do contribute to better health. Fruit, for example contains sugar in the form of fructose and glucose, however it also contains fiber and a wide array of nutrients, making it a valuable part of a healthy diet.
Similarly milk, which contains sugar in the form of lactose, also provides calcium and valuable protein that contributes to satiety. It has been suggested that whilst milk, fruit and juice and soft drinks all contain sugar, the latter two are more likely to contribute to obesity due to their lack of protein which helps to fill you up and stop you from overeating.
The other nutrients found in foods containing sugar can also influence the effect that the sugar has on our bodies in terms of blood glucose levels and insulin response. Sugary foods that also contain high levels of fat or fiber are digested more slowly, meaning they have a lower GI and keep you fuller for longer.
It should be noted that high sugar and fat foods, although they make keep blood sugar levels more constant may still contribute to weight gain due to high calories.
Should you quit sugar?
A little bit of sugar in your diet is unlikely to be a huge problem, and certainly if it is in the form of a food that provides important nutritional value. Reducing your sugar intake by eliminating added sugars and processed foods and drinks that are very sweet may be a good way to lose weight, control cravings and reduce risk of lifestyle diseases, however diets that eliminate any sugar containing food such as fruit is probably too extreme and is likely to put you at risk of deficiencies in other nutrients.
See also: How to stop sugar cravings naturally
References used in this article