You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Is sugar the enemy?

Is sugar the enemy?

When I first cut back on sugar, my libido went through the roof!” says Emily, a 45-year-old mother of two. “I mean, it actually became a bit of a problem – I couldn’t look at the pizza guy without wanting to jump his bones.”

Emily is one of thousands of people consuming less of what we once called “white gold” and reaping the physiological benefits from doing so – from increased energy levels to rapid weight loss, better concentration and healthier skin. Not only is sugar said to make us fat, sluggish and unpleasant to be around, but it’s also rotting our teeth, giving us cancer, lowering our children’s IQ, contributing to the type 2 diabetes epidemic, causing cirrhosis of the liver and turning us all into raging addicts.

Yep, this year scientific research from the University of California claims the sweet substance is being abused. On average, Americans consume more than 23 teaspoons of sugar a day (Australians are rumoured to be not far off) when the recommended intake is nine. It gives you a rush, messes with your mind, and always leaves you wanting more. Researchers say it’s a toxic drug that the government should regulate with taxes like tobacco and alcohol.

The problem with sugar

The problem is that we have a deep-rooted resistance to quitting sugar. You won’t remember the first time you got a sugar high. But you will recall the Killer Python your mum gave you when you grazed your knee, the 220- gram Top Deck you scoffed with your best mate after you got dumped, or the “treat” you bought to cure last week’s three-thirtyitis.

“We grow up with a full-on emotional and physical attachment to sugar,” says Sarah Wilson in her eBook, I Quit Sugar. “Just the idea of not being able to turn to it when we’re feeling a little lost or tired or bored or emotionally bereft terrifies us.”

Wilson didn’t guzzle Coke and hadn’t had a Krispy Kreme in her life. She was convinced she ate “good” sugar and didn’t have a “problem”. That was until she read David Gillespie’s best-selling book Sweet Poison (sweetpoison.com.au).

With 40 unwelcome kilos on his waistline, Gillespie set out to discover why. He cites Princeton University research that showed sugar is as addictive as heroin or crack cocaine, the accuracy of which has caused a lot of debate. Yet recent reports say the brain lights up the same way it would in an alcoholic with a bottle of gin thanks to a spike in dopamine – the so-called reward chemical.

After a series of failed diets, including Atkins, Gillespie gave sugar the boot, lost more than the weight he wanted (over the course of a year) and became a crusader against the one thing he believes is the cause of the world’s weight problems: fructose. And the reason? “Fructose makes you fat without making you full,” he says.

Our bodies have no use for fructose

Put simply, fructose is one component of sugar, the other being glucose. Our body processes glucose like carbohydrates; we need it for energy. But our body doesn’t have any use for fructose so it goes straight to the liver where it is converted to fatty acids, then body fat.

“Fructose is also invisible to our in-built calorie counter, the hypothalamus in the brain,” Gillespie says. “We can eat as much as we can shove down our throats and never feel full for long because our bodies do not release the three major appetite hormones that tell us we’ve had enough: insulin, leptin and cholecystokinin (CCK).”

What’s even worse is we probably don’t realise we’re eating it. Sugar doesn’t have to be broken down on food labels so the amount of fructose is not listed. And we’re not just talking about a sugar in your tea or a sprinkling on your cereal, but rather all the unlikely places, in everyday foodstuffs like mayonnaise, fruit juice and foods claiming to be “natural” – 99.8 per cent fat-free can mean 33 grams of sugar per serve, or eight teaspoons of sugar, or half an hour on the treadmill.

Fruit also contains a lot of fructose. But experts everywhere agree that fresh fruit also contains fibre and this triggers insulin and the process that tells us that we’re full. Plus, you’d have to eat a truckload of bananas (which would take a lifetime) to get the same amount of fructose that’s in say a two-litre bottle of apple juice (which would take you a week to consume).

How to quit your sugar habit

Here comes the hard-to-swallow truth: the only way to curb a sugar habit is to cut back. It might not sound pretty – sugar withdrawal has been likened to nicotine withdrawal. Like any addict, you need to detox before you can fully recover. But your body will crave the sweet stuff less as it gets back in control. And most people report feeling benefits within just a matter of days.

“My palate has changed and become much less sugar tolerant. I’m more sensitive to sweet tastes and cannot bear things like chocolate,” says Emily. “It makes it easier to cut out because I know if I bought it I wouldn’t actually like it.”

“My tummy’s flatter,” says Sally Mathrick, nutritionist at Sparkle Wellness and Detox. (sparklewell.com.au) “The best outcome is the clarity and balance it gives me emotionally and mentally. I also seem to have more stamina.”

While artificial sweeteners can be seen as a tool for getting through the withdrawal period, they don’t offer a long-term solution. In addition to the arguments about their real “health”, sweeteners travel to the part of the brain associated with desire, but not to the part responsible for reward. Instead, Mathrick recommends you keep your blood glucose levels stable by snacking regularly. “I find eating fresh, mineral-rich foods helps. Or I go for a walk, and find something else sweet in the world.”

Never underestimate the power of exercise. Being active is vital for your overall health and the prevention of disease. And don’t just shrug and turn back to your cupcake – read the labels for yourself and see. Take note of how much sugar you’re actually taking in over a week. Look for red-flag ingredients like corn syrup, fruit sugar and cane juice. After all, it’s impossible to refute we’d all benefit from reducing our intake of sweetened foods and drinks. Then we’d find something truly sweet: a healthy body and mind. 

Foods to avoid

  • Cereals: Try plain Weet-Bix, muesli without added fruit, or oats with cinnamon or vanilla instead of honey.
  • Diet Yoghurt: Go for natural yoghurt with no added flavours or sweeteners and add berries to it instead.
  • Fruit Juice: It’s said the average apple juice has more sugar than an equivalent quantity of Coke.
  • Muesli Bars: Fruit bars are packed full of sugar, even if it they say they’re “all natural”.
  • Sauces: Barbecue sauce is about 50 per cent sugar, tomato sauce about 25 per cent, and Asian sauces are higher than you would expect.

Words by Kelly Irving