Sugar is at the tip of everyone’s tongue, from people trying to reduce their intake for better health, to heated arguments around regulating sugar like tobacco; with health warnings and taxes. But, for you, right now, a big question is “will cutting sugar out of your diet really change your health?”
There is arguably no topic hotter in nutrition right now than the health effects of sugar, and what we should be doing about it. Recently, the British Medical Journal’s (BMJ) Open Heart, published in partnership with the British Cardiovascular Society, ran an editorial that hit sugar hard:
“Added sugars provide energy (calories), but in the context of consumption at current intake levels, they hinder the production of energy, and through the direct influence on a wide array of cardiometabolic disease processes, they lead to reduced quality of life and decreased lifespan, and thus cannot be considered food.”
This unprecedented scientific opinion reflects the emerging view in popular culture that sugar is toxic, and we should be eating a lot less. But how much sugar should we be eating? Is sugar really toxic? And can you really “detox” sugar? Fortunately the heat is on sugar so the answers to these questions have very recently become much clearer than they ever have been. So let’s dive in and find out.
How much sugar should we be eating?
If you asked an Hadza hunter-gather to cut down their refined sugar intake because it’s bad for their health, they would certainly be amused. The Hadza are one of the last remaining hunter-gather societies, and their diet shares a curiosity with people in the industrialized world; they eat loads of refined sugar. In fact sugar is a crucial part of the traditional Hadza diet and comprises around 15% of their total energy intake, which is a level thought to be consistent with many pre-industrial cultures. A key difference between the sugar in their diet and ours, however, is that it is exclusively from honey.
Honey has been an important part of the human diet for several thousand years, according to anthropological records, but likely extends much, much further than we know. Although honey is sometimes claimed to be more nutritious that refined sugar, it is not much different, and levels of nutrients other than sugar are nutritionally insignificant. But traditional societies such as the Hadza are not plagued by sugar-related disease, far from it, they are exceptionally healthy. So where did we go wrong?
We can trace the rise in sugar to a single time-point; the industrial revolution. The per capita refined sugar (sucrose) consumption in England rose from 130g per week in 1815 to today’s consumption of added-sugars of 344.4g per week for women and 478.8g for men, which is an average of 11.7 to 16 teaspoons per day respectively. These figures are not much different for children and adolescents, which is particularly alarming as their relatively low energy expenditure and body weight compared to adults means that their sugar intake is disproportionally higher.  
Contrast this to the current consensus on healthy sugar intakes and most people are at least double recommended levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition in England (SACN) recommend <10% total calories, or:
- Less than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) per day for men
- Less than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women
- Less than 3-6 teaspoons (12 – 25 grams) per day for children
The sugar in our diets is almost exclusively from added-sugars hidden in foods, mostly sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g. soft drinks, fruit juices, milk drinks, energy drinks), and packaged and processed foods (especially cereals and baked goods). Case in point, a recent survey found that 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets contain added sugars. The prevalence of sugar in foods may be shocking, but food manufacturers use sugars with many different names which makes it hard to know what you are eating, here are just a few:
Names for sugar and sweeteners:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Agave nectar or syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Barley malt
- Coconut sugar
- Cane sugar
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Grape sugar
- Grape concentrate
- Raw sugar
- Brown sugar
- Demerara sugar
- Palm sugar
- Brown rice syrup
- Date sugar
So it is clear that relatively recently sugar has become ubiquitous in modern, processed diets, and at levels that greatly exceed recommend intakes. But should we be worried?
Is sugar really toxic?
While a bit of honey in your tea may be harmless, eating food laced with added sugars all day is a different matter. The current research quite clearly shows that sugar, at a high enough intake, is toxic. Toxic in that it adversely affects your metabolism in a way that increases risk for disease, and there is plenty of evidence to show it can directly result in some serious health consequences.
So what happens when you compare someone who is relatively sugar-free to those consume added sugar at a level that matches the average dietary intake? To answer this a high profile research team from the University of California conducted a “this is you, on sugar” experiment. Over just 2-weeks they found that added sugars, at levels that match average intakes, significantly increased a number of cardiovascular risk markers in the blood of young adults. Keep in mind that most people are consuming this much sugar, every day, for most of their lives.
But what about links to actual diseases? We have heard sugar rots your teeth, but could it damage organs such as your liver, brain and heart as well? Linking any dietary factor to disease is inherently difficult due to problems such as inaccurate measures of what people are eating and teasing out the effects of sugar vs the food its hidden in. Fortunately, we have sugar-sweetened beverages: liquid sugar, and people are drinking loads of it.
Large-scale studies of sugar-sweetened beverages have shown strong links to diseases you might expect, such as heart disease, obesity, and type-2 diabetes. In most cases increases in risk are similar magnitude to smoking or not exercising. But, most concerning, other and sometimes surprising diseases are now strongly associated with drinking sugar, such as gout, arthritis, autoimmune disease, fatty liver disease, depression, and dementia. It appears that sugar does actually rot your body, resulting in breakdown of organs and tissues and ultimately life-threatening diseases.
Can you really “detox” sugar?
Ironically, the proof that sugar is bad for you is in the pudding. Despite the popularity of sugar detox or reduction diets, only recently has the science shed light on the health effects of quitting sugar. And it appears that detoxing sugar could indeed transform your health.
To see if your taste for sugary foods does change after quitting sugar, in one study a group of 20 people cut out all added sugars and artificial sweeteners in their diets for 2-weeks. After the sugar detox challenge, 95% of people found that sweet foods and drinks tasted sweeter or too sweet, 75% found that other foods tasted sweeter, and 95% said that moving forward they would use less or even no sugar. And quitting sugar got easy fast; with 86.6% of people reporting that they had no more cravings for sugar after just 6-days.
And the health benefits are fast and striking. This year Robert Lustig MD, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at University of California and author of “Fat Chance, The Hidden Truth About Sugar,” published his own sugar detox study. Lustig and his team found that restricting sugar, while keeping calories constant, in the diet of a group of adolescents resulted in big reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, insulin, and body fat, within just 9-days!
The bitter truth
Reportedly, when white, crystalline, refined sugar first appeared as a possible food item people treated it with trepidation, it looks like a drug. Over a century later sugar is the new tobacco, with comparable health effects and controversy surrounding its regulation. It is clear that too much is toxic, and that cutting down sugar intake is a major health priority for most people. The problem is that modern, processed foods are sugar coated, both literally and figuratively, so cutting down on sugar is hard. That’s why a structured dietary “sugar detox” program that raises awareness of the problem while providing support tools and social motivation has the power to lift the lid on sugar and transform lives.
Benjamin Brown, ND. Ben is a naturopath, nutritionist, speaker, and science writer. He is Lecturer at BCNH College of Nutrition and Health, Technical Director at Viridian Nutrition and author of The Digestive Health Solution. Visit timeforwellness.org.
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