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Can You “Detox” Sugar?

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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. [1] [2]

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.[3] 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:

  • Sucrose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Fructose
  • Honey
  • Corn syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltitol
  • Agave nectar or syrup
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Erythritol
  • Barley malt
  • Dextrose
  • 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.


[1] Cordain L, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Feb;81(2):341-54.

[2] Official Statistics. National Diet and Nutrition Survey: results from Years 1 to 4 (combined) of the rolling programme for 2008 and 2009 to 2011 and 2012. From: Public Health England and Food Standards Agency. First published: 14 May 2014

[3] Ng SW, Slining MM, Popkin BM. Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 Nov;112(11):1828-34.e1-6

[4] Stanhope KL, Medici V, Bremer AA, Lee V, Lam HD, Nunez MV, Chen GX, Keim NL, Havel PJ. A dose-response study of consuming high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages on lipid/lipoprotein risk factors for cardiovascular disease in young adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Jun;101(6):1144-54.

[5] Bartolotto C. Does Consuming Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners Change Taste Preferences? Perm J. 2015 Summer;19(3):81-4.

[6]Lustig RH, Mulligan K, Noworolski SM, Tai VW, Wen MJ, Erkin-Cakmak A,Gugliucci A, Schwarz JM. Isocaloric fructose restriction and metabolicimprovement in children with obesity and metabolic syndrome. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016 Feb;24(2):453-60.

How To Measure a Vitamin or Mineral

How to Measure a Vitamin or Mineral

A Viridian Nutrition guide to nutritional measurements

Gram – A gram is a metric measurement of weight.
An old imperial measure of weight is the ounce and one ounce = 28.4 grams.

Milligram – One milligram is one thousandth of a gram and one thousand micrograms.
A milligram is generally abbreviated as mg.

Microgram – One microgram is one millionth of a gram and one thousandth of a milligram.
It is usually abbreviated as mcg or ug. Mcg and ug are the same. Read More…

Barefoot Running

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With the barefoot running craze sweeping the fitness industry its time we talked about how to treat our feet.

First of all, why run barefoot or in minimalist shoes at all? Talk to 99% of regular runners and you will hear about an endless list of injuries and niggles. Sore knees, ankles, hips, lower backs and calves all plague the runner. Now, the most prominent theory to come out as to why the modern day runner suffers so much is to do with our footwear.

To give you the whistle stop tour, cushioned arches and raised heels, as is the norm with modern day running shoes, have changed our natural running style. They have made our arches lazy (the part of the foot designed to absorb the shock when we run) and produced a running gait that results in our heels striking the ground first. Bad news for our knees and hips that feel the shock of impact the most. Not to mention the fact that a heel striking running gait is much less energy efficient because it doesn’t get the most out of our Achilles heels, the ‘spring’ in our step!

Cue the arrival of minimalist running shoes. Minimalist shoes are designed with the aim of allowing the foot to function as though it was barefoot. There’s no arch support or raised heel. The only thing it gives us is protection on our soles against stones, bumps and lumps. That’s it. Read More…

Stress and Injury

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There can be no doubt that the positives of an active lifestyle far outweigh any negatives, but unfortunately with any training and exercise comes a risk of injury. We’ve written articles in the past on combating low energy and motivation levels but there is surely no obstacle more frustrating than injury.

There is never a good time to pick up an injury, but more often than not it strikes you down just as you’ve begun to start enjoying yourself. You’ve found the motivation to get active; you’ve tweaked your schedule to accommodate regular workouts, you are three weeks into your fitness programme and just beginning to see results when crash, you’re icing your knee, making doctors appointments and seeking out the best physiotherapists. There are endless causes of injury but we’re not writing this to talk about preventions or cures. The focus here is on the psychological stress that comes with injury. The often ignored, but ever-present ugly side effect.

Having recently been in a bike accident that ended with me needing surgery on a broken collarbone I feel in the perfect place to talk about this. It comes as no surprise that I spend the majority of my life being active, whether it’s with clients or by myself keeping fit, so it’s fair to say that this has come as a major blow. I regularly find my concentration slip from the task at hand to feeling frustrated that my latest health and fitness goals are slipping further away with each week, or the fact that day to day annoyances and lethargy cant be worked off in the gym or at the park. The only thing that gets regularly exercised at the moment is my will power to avoid overdoing my rehab or pushing my recovery too hard or too fast. Read More…

Energy Boosting

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Steve Mellor and James Osborn of Freedom2train.com are the hottest trainers around and responsible for motivating and building strong, lean and healthy bodies for their clients, as well as being nutritional experts. They have been signed up as the fitness bloggers for Harper’s Bazaar and were recently credited in Vogue as being ‘training perfection’. This month they talk about energy boosting and top training tips:

If there’s one thing that can really damage adherence to an exercise programme it’s deficiencies in energy. That feeling of lethargy we’ve all been familiar with at some point in our lives is a master at turning the best intentions and highest levels of motivation into an evening slumped on the sofa yawning our way through another TV series.

Despite this, very few of us think to address the problem of fatigue and take actions to remedy it, much like we would think to treat the flu or an illness. Instead we ignore it, attributing it to a bad night’s sleep, hard day at work or a late night. Suddenly you’re four weeks down the line, regularly ditching workouts and not seeing the results you should.

The fact is, in the majority of cases, constant fatigue is a condition of lifestyle, much like obesity or type 2 diabetes. Subsequently, just like obesity or type 2 diabetes, low levels of energy can be treated with small changes in the way we live our lives.
Read More…