Sugar is a current hot topic. People are taking a closer look at how much sugar they are consuming, starting to read labels and realising how much sugar we are feeding ourselves and our family. It can be a healthy wake up call.

As with pretty much everything in life – balance is the key and this is especially the case when it comes to health and wellbeing. Natural sugar in small amounts in an otherwise healthy whole food diet filled with fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, legumes and organic animal products generally won’t cause too many health issues. It’s when we consume too much processed sugar (often in the form of high fructose corn syrup), or start consuming artificial sweetening agents that we are moving away from our natural path of wellness. 

The sugar problem began a few decades ago when it was decided that fat was bad and needed to be eliminated from the diet if we wanted to lose weight. (This is a whole other topic to be discussed in a future article). Fat is not only required in food to make it possible to absorb fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin D (another deficiency issue amongst our culture) and minerals such as calcium, but it also contributes to food tasting delicious and helps our taste buds and digestive system feel satisfied and therefore naturally switch off the desire to over eat. Since reducing fat from many food products (‘low fat’ and ‘no fat’ or ‘diet’ products), flavour and taste had to be replaced by something – enter sugar and artificial sweeteners.

As so beautifully depicted in the documentary ‘Hungry For Change’, a 1kg bag of sugar can be advertised as 100% fat free. However once consumed, the body converts excess sugar to fat to be used for energy at a later stage. For many people the energy required by the body doesn’t outweigh the sugar that’s been consumed, so more body fat is stored. Even with ‘low fat’ diets our population was still getting fatter with increasing incidence of diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease, so attention shifted to the amount of sugar being consumed. The trend of artificial sweeteners began as we wanted low fat and low sugar but needed to use something to make the taste of the products more appetising without affecting blood sugar levels and increasing body fat.

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (951, nutrasweet and equal), saccharin (954), sucralose (955), cyclamate (952) are commonly used chemical based sweeteners and although they don’t increase blood sugar levels, there is great concern about their safety. They are often found in diet products, chewing gum, desserts, cakes and even toothpaste. Just because these substances are used in our food, it certainly doesn’t mean they are completely safe. Some of these chemically derived artificial sweeteners are banned in other countries due to health safety concerns. Reported side effects include neurological disturbance, irritable bowel type symptoms and cancer.

Xylitol (967) and Stevia raubdiana (960) may be the better of the natural alternatives for sweeteners.  Xylitol can be found in the fibrous parts of some fruit and vegetables as well as in the bark of some trees. The beauty of xylitol is that is looks and tastes like sugar but doesn’t affect blood sugar levels like sugar does. It has also demonstrated some antibacterial properties and may reduce risk of dental cavities and oral thrush.

Stevia powder is derived from a South American herb and tastes even sweeter than sugar without negatively impacting blood sugar levels.

One of the problems with artificial sweeteners (even the natural versions) is that the taste still stimulates the brain as a sweet sensation and can contribute to sweet cravings. Usually the products containing the artificial sweetener are low fat so there is no satiety felt after eating them and the consumer is left feeling unsatisfied and craving more sugar. In fact some studies conclude that people who consume artificial sweeteners end up putting on more body weight over time than those who don’t.

My patients often ask if it’s better to have diet soft drink or the original version with plain old sugar. Of course the answer is NEITHER! Break the habit and enjoy plain mineral or soda water with fresh lime or lemon squeezed into it. The less sugar and sweeteners you have, the less you will want them. For that sweet craving after dinner, try drinking a cup of herbal tea or look at your watch and wait 30mins. Usually when you check in with your body after that, the sweet craving has subsided and you realise you really don’t need anything. If there is a legitimate sweet desire, try a square or 2 of organic dark chocolate. Generally if sugar is required, choose the natural version such as raw sugar, honey, maple syrup, or molasses. People with insulin sensitive conditions need to monitor all sugar consumption.

We have moved from a ‘low fat’ diet fad to ‘low carb’ diet fad yet our culture continues to become more obese and primarily die due to cardiovascular disease. Diet is all about what you do eat, not what you don’t eat. So how about we give away fad diets and artificial sweeteners, and eat natural wholesome food as nature intended. Eat wholefoods that are as close to nature as possible and focus on a low glycaemic index diet to reduce excess body fat. If we allow ourselves to eat seasonally, in moderation, conscious of portion size and exercise regularly we won’t need ‘diets’ as such. It’s not a magic pill and it will take time for your body to catch up to how well you’re treating it, but it is the way forward to a happy and healthy life. Or you could ask yourself – “Would my grandmother have eaten this?”