30 Apr Is Sugar Really The Bad Guy?
Is sugar a dietary villain and the cause of many of our health ills? Well, yes and no. But the answer is far more complex than that.
It is true that my peers and I have been warning people for decades about the perils of consuming too much of the sweet stuff. Nevertheless, a single nutrient approach that blames one particular food or ingredient for all our health ailments is far too simplistic and loses sight of the bigger picture. Worryingly, an excessive focus of restricting one ingredient may lead to people cutting out highly nutritious foods like fruit from their diet.
What the sugar?
With regards to sugar, the evidence highlights a paradox. On average, Australians consume 10.9 per cent of their total energy from sugar, only marginally higher than the World Health Organisation’s guideline of less than 10 per cent. Yet Australia is in the midst of an obesity and type 2 diabetes crisis, despite the fact that collectively, we are consuming less sugar than ever before. It is clear that issues of obesity and type 2 diabetes are multifactorial.
Healthy eating is not rocket science. But, it’s certainly a lot more complex than telling people to simply ditch the sugar. According to the likes of Robert Lustig and the anti-sugar brigade, we should be eliminating fruit and dairy from our diets because of their sugar content. Yet, the research continually shows that people who include more of these foods in their diet are better able to maintain a healthy weight and are at a reduced risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.
Also, it is important to differentiate between natural sugars and added sugars. Fruit and dairy products, while containing some natural sugar, also contain a raft of essential nutrients. In contrast, added sugars provide no nutritional value.
What do the Guidelines suggest?
The Australian Dietary Guidelines, revised in 2013, inform us about the kinds and amount of food required to sustain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of lifestyle-related disease. There’s so much confusion around what constitutes a healthy diet. It’s clear that we need some guidance about what to eat.
With over 60 per cent of Aussie adults and 25 per cent of children battling the bulge, the guidelines aim to assist us to make food choices that will help us to stay healthy. The guidelines are clear in their recommendations to reduce our intake of ‘discretionary’ foods such as cake, chocolate, sweet biscuits, and to reduce our consumption of saturated fat, added sugar and salt.
Over 55,000 peer-reviewed, scientific research papers are behind the guidelines. The guidelines recommend that we eat a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups. Interestingly, there’s no discussion on avoiding sugar altogether.
Nevertheless, the questions that warrant our attention are: If the guidelines are designed to keep us fit and healthy, then why are our waistlines expanding? And, why are we now at an even higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease than ever before?
The answer to both questions is simple: we simply aren’t following the recommendations.
Facts, facts, facts
Here are the facts: According to the 2012 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, the average Australian consumes 35 per cent of their daily energy from discretionary foods. That statistic alone is staggering. That means that more than 1/3 of our intake is derived from things like chips, lollies, chocolate, fruit juice, soft drinks, cordials, alcohol, cakes, pastries, fast food and high energy snack foods. Also, only six per cent of those surveyed met their recommended daily intake of vegetables. And just over half of the respondents reported meeting their recommended daily intake of fruit. The stats are well and truly damning! There’s little wonder that the CSIRO recently graded our diets a measly C.
The evidence as it stands is clear. We can’t just blame sugar for our expanding waistlines. It runs deeper than that.
Perhaps a renewed focus on whole foods rather than single nutrients would lead to better health outcomes. Our dietary guidelines highlight this clearly. They go something like this: eat more fruit, vegetables, lean meat, low-fat dairy and whole grains, and consume less high energy, nutritionally meagre, junk foods and sugary drinks. It’s pretty sweet advice, really.