Sugar Overconsumption – The Bitter Truth
Like it or lump it, sugar is slowly and sweetly poisoning the Australian population yet we can’t get enough of the stuff. What was once considered a “rare luxury” is now being consumed in gluttonous portions – Sugar Overconsumption. In fact, the average Australian adult consumes more than 42 kg of sugar every single year, equating to about 27 teaspoons every single day. What’s worse is that most people are blissfully unaware that something so sweet can be so detrimental to their health (Rikkers et al, 2013). It’s important to note that not all sugars are bad for you. For example, naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables do not pose health risks. The type of sugar that is of concern is refined sugar and is typically found in processed and packaged foods.
FACT: Excessive sugar intake is a major contributing factor of obesity. Obese individuals have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer (endometrial, breast and colon), type 2 diabetes, respiratory problems and osteoarthritis. (Bianchini, 2002)
During the ‘70s there was concern amongst Australian health professionals that dietary fat consumption, particularly saturated fat, was to blame for the rise in obesity and heart disease. It was assumed that modest intakes of dietary fat were lining people’s arteries and causing weight gain. The proposed answer to this problem seemed almost too good to be true “if you don’t eat fat, you won’t get fat”.
Food manufacturers were quick to heed this advice and immediately began reducing the fat content of their products. However once the fat content of the products was reduced, so was the flavour, making food literally taste like cardboard. To the delight of the food industry, it was discovered that the palatability of their products could be restored by adding refined sugar, lots of refined sugar. To sell these new sugar laden foods, clever marketing campaigns were developed. These new low fat, high sugar products were touted as healthy alternatives with catchy slogans like “99% fat free” and “50% less fat”.
By the time the late ‘90s had arrived, the amount of refined sugar consumption in manufactured food products had more than doubled from a modest 16.3 kg per capita, to a whopping 33.9 kg. People were consuming more sugar than ever before, due to the misguided assumption that fat was evil and had to be avoided at all costs. (Rikkers et al, 2013)
FACT: You may be surprised to know that refined sugar is in everything from sliced bread, breakfast cereals, salad dressings, muesli bars, canned soup and yoghurt.
Despite consuming less fat, the prevalence of obesity and heart disease amongst the Australian population continued to sky rocket. In fact, in the last 10 years, the rates of overweight and obesity in Australia have increased faster than any other country, making us one of the fattest countries in the world. According to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2013, 70% of men, 56% of women and a quarter of all children are classified as being either overweight or obese. (ABS 2013)
Many people may think that being overweight or obese is the cause of other non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. However, research shows that 20% of obese people have a normal metabolism and will have a normal lifespan, where as 40% of people with a healthy weight range will develop metabolic syndrome (diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, dyslipidemia and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). This indicates two things; (Lustig et al. 2012)
- Just because you are not overweight, doesn’t mean you are healthy.
- Obesity is not the cause of disease, but rather a risk factor for metabolic dysfunction.
To put it simply, obesity is a lifestyle disease. It is a due to a combination of inactivity and excessive consumption of energy dense but nutrient poor food. White bread, biscuits, potato chips, pasta, breakfast cereal, pre-packaged meals, sauces, fruit juice and soft drink all provide your body with an enormous amount of energy but very few vitamins and minerals. Which begs the question, why is sugar so toxic?
FACT: In 2008, the direct financial cost of obesity in Australia was approximately AUD$58.2 billion. (Colagiuri, et al. 2010)
The human body cannot survive without protein. It cannot survive without essential fatty acids, but it can survive completely without sugar. It’s a completely dispensable food group. To be able to appreciate and understand why sugar is so toxic, it is important to firstly discuss what sugar actually is. Sugar refers to the class of sweet tasting, energy dense carbohydrates. The most common natural forms of dietary carbohydrates include; (O’Callaghan, 2014)
Glucose (found in whole grains and vegetables) Fructose (found in fruit and honey) Lactose (found in dairy products – made up of galactose + glucose) Sucrose (cane or table sugar – made up of glucose + fructose)
The body is capable of metabolizing and utilizing small amounts of glucose, fructose and lactose quite efficiently. However large quantities of these sugars, particularly fructose can become problematic. This does not mean that people should stop eating fruits and vegetables. Whilst fruits and vegetables contain fructose, they are also fantastic sources of dietary fiber and various other vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. (O’Callaghan, 2014)
The nutrients found in fruits and vegetables actually help the body to process the fructose they contain whilst also exerting a host of other beneficial health effects. Sucrose on the other hand is nothing more than a super concentrated source of glucose and fructose. What’s worse is that sucrose is generally added to processed foods which are already devoid of nutrients. Because the body requires vitamins like B2, B3 & B6 to metabolise sugar, eating these foods will often deplete the body of more nutrients than they provide.
FACT: Much of the blame around obesity is linked to an over consumption of high fructose corn syrup, which we don’t have in Australia. So why are Australian’s getting so fat? Well did you know that sucrose (cane sugar – one of our biggest agricultural industries) and high fructose corn syrup are basically the same thing. They are both made up of equal parts of glucose and fructose, both stored as fat and also increase levels of oxidative stress. (O’Callaghan, 2014)
So why is fructose so damaging compared to other sugars such as glucose? Glucose plays an integral role in human metabolism, brain function and energy production. But this doesn’t mean we need to eat glucose because our body can derive it from complex carbohydrates and starch. Fructose on the other hand is not required by the body and is subsequently converted into fat by the liver. This fat is deposited in and around internal organs such as the liver and heart causing fatty liver disease, arterial stiffening, cirrhosis and insulin resistance. (Lustig et al. 2012)
When glucose is consumed, a range of biological processes are initiated. Firstly, insulin is released to stabilize blood sugar levels. Next, a hormone called leptin is released which sends a signal to the brain to tell us that we are full and to stop eating. However, when fructose is consumed, these processes do not occur. In fact, some preliminary evidence suggests that fructose actually stimulates the release of a hormone called ghrelin. This hormone actually stimulates the hunger signal, indicating that fructose consumption may actually encourage over eating. (Lustig et al. 2012)
Unlike glucose, fructose metabolism produces significant quantities of free oxygen radicals. These free oxygen radicals are dangerously reactive chemicals which damage healthy cells and DNA. Individuals who eat a high quality diet consisting of fruits, vegetables and essential fatty acids have higher amounts of antioxidants, which help to mop up free oxygen radicals. Conversely, individuals who consume large quantities of processed foods and refined sugar have an increased oxidative stress load. (Lustig et al. 2012)
FACT: One can of your favourite soft drink contains roughly 40g or 9 tea spoons of sugar. According to a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, consuming just one can of soft drink per day could lead to a 6.75 kg weight gain over a 12 month period. (Apovian, 2004)
Sugar has been traditionally considered an empty source of energy. However, there is nothing empty about it; much like alcohol and tobacco, sugar has a clear potential for abuse. A growing body of evidence suggests that excessive sugar intake affects human health beyond simply adding kilojoules. It can be as addictive as some illicit drugs. This is because foods high in refined sugar trigger the reward pathway in the brain, boosting the levels of dopamine comparable to a hit of cocaine. After a sugar hit, the levels of dopamine increase (making us feel really good), but then decrease rapidly. This decrease in dopamine makes us crave another sugar hit. It’s no wonder we can’t get enough of the stuff. (Lustig et al. 2012)
It’s well known that the overconsumption of sugar can cause diabetes, heart disease and cancer; however in recent years, sugar has been implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s. Researchers are now referring to Alzheimer’s disease as type 3 diabetes. It is thought that a chronic and excessive intake of sugar can alter the mechanism where insulin allows glucose to enter brain tissue. Glucose is the main fuel source of the brain and even minor reductions in brain glucose levels have been hypothesized to starve the brain, resulting in altered cerebral function and blood flow. There is also preliminary evidence to suggest that sugar depletes niacin, an essential B group vitamin which protects our brain cells against damage. (Iadecola, 2015)
FACT: Fructose can speed up the ageing process by binding to and damaging our DNA.
There are many simple and effective dietary and lifestyle interventions which can be implemented to reduce your sugar intake including;
- Avoiding consumption of sugar sweetened beverages
- Avoiding consumption of processed foods and refined grains
- Limiting the use of table sugar in your diet
- Consuming at least 3 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables per day
- Consuming a high quality source of protein for breakfast (this reduces sugar cravings)
- Partake in at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day
- Cook your own meals with a focus on fresh, whole food ingredients
- Drink at least 2 litres of water per day
If you would like a dietary assessment, an oxidative stress test, or if you are interested in learning more about the effects that sugar is having on your health, please don’t hesitate to make an appointment by contacting the reception team at South Yarra Spine and Sports Medicine.
Daniel Roytas Naturopath & Nutritionist
Apovian, CM, 2004, ‘Sugar-sweetened soft drinks, obesity, and type 2 diabetes’, Journal of the American Medical Association, 292(8), pp. 978-979
Australian Bureau of Statistics: 1997–98 and 1998–1999 Apparent Consumption of Foodstuffs, cat. no. 4306.0. Canberra: ABS; 2013
Bianchini, F, 2002, ‘Overweight, obesity and cancer risk’, The Lancet Oncology, 3(9), pp. 565-574
Colagiuri, S, Lee, CM, Colagiuri, R., 2010, ‘The cost of overweight and obesity in Australia’, MJA, 192(5), pp. 260-265
Iadecola, C, 2015, ‘Sugar and Alzheimer’s disease: A bittersweet truth’, 18(4), pp. 477-478
Lustig, HR, Schmidt, LA, Brindis, CD, 2012, ‘The toxic truth about sugar’, Nature, 482, pp. 27-31
O’Callaghan, 2014, ‘Sickly Sweet’, The New Scientist, pp. 34-39
Rickers, W, Lawrence, D, Hafekost, K, et al. 2013, ‘Trend in sugar supply and consumption in Australia: is there an Australian paradox?’, BMC Public Health, 13, pp. 668