The sweet truth

Sugar has been seeing a lot of negative press in recent times. Here we take a look at the science behind that sweet little molecule to see if it is really as bad as we are told.

So what exactly is it?

Sugar is a carbohydrate, just like bread, potatoes, rice and pasta are. However not all carbs are created equal… In the past, carbohydrates were categorised as simple (like sugar), or complex (such as most vegetables), with complex meaning longer chains of sugar molecules strung together. Recent research has shifted this thinking more towards the impact of each carb on your blood sugar – low glycaemic index (GI) foods are those which raise blood sugar levels slowly, whereas high GI foods cause a spike in your blood sugar. Cooking and food processing can also influence a food’s GI – food that is more broken down into smaller particles is more easily absorbed and thus has a higher GI.

What’s the problem with high GI foods?

With high GI foods causing a spike in your blood sugar, your body releases a larger amount of insulin to control the sugar. This insulin spike increases fat storage, but more importantly if repeated over time, your body’s cells start to develop resistance to the insulin spikes. Over a prolonged period, some doctors believe this can lead to type 2 diabetes, where your body can no longer effectively control blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes leads to a notably higher risk of a number of conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, eye and foot problems, and nerve problems.

So much for a sweet tooth

Sugar is also associated with tooth decay – that is because bacteria in the mouth feed on sugars from the diet and produce acid that attacks the tooth surface removing minerals from the teeth and leading to tooth decay. The best way to prevent this is by brushing your teeth twice a day including before going to bed.

So what’s the take home message on sugar?

Small amounts of sugar as part of a meal are ok.

Limit foods and drinks with added sugar, and choose foods with naturally occuring sugars such as fresh fruits, but do control your overall sugar intake including natural sources.

Limit soft drinks to as little as possible, particularly in children.

Written by Simon Elliott

SiSU Wellness Exercise Physiologist