IT SEEMS TO REFUSE SUGAR IS THE NEW BLACK. Increasingly, sugar is called the cause of all diseases, and at the same time, narcotic properties are attributed to it – supposedly it causes a real addiction. Although these claims are somewhat exaggerated, scientists and public health officials are also concerned about excess sugar in the diet. We figure out in what quantities it is really harmful and whether it is necessary to abandon it completely.
What is sugar
In a broad sense, sugars are understood as small crystals of carbohydrates that make food sweet. They are divided into two groups: monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose. A disaccharide is a molecule of two monosaccharides. The most common of these are sucrose, which is made up of glucose and fructose molecules and is known as common table sugar, lactose, which is made up of glucose and galactose, which is the main sugar in milk, and maltose, which is made up of two glucose molecules. Mono- and disaccharides are easily absorbed and can be used immediately as an energy source – faster than longer carbohydrate chains such as starch.
Sugars are found in the tissues of many plants – vegetables, fruits, nuts, cereals, and others. Sugar is industrially made from sugar cane and sugar beets, and in the United States, high-fructose corn syrup is also used in the food industry.
How attitudes towards sugar have changed
The attitude to sugar has long been positive or neutral; almost until the end of the last century, sugars (primarily sucrose) were considered a useful type of carbohydrate that suppresses hunger and brings energy. Until the 1950s, people ate little sweets – also because during the two world wars and for some time after, the availability of sugar in the world was limited. But by the fifties, sugar consumption began to skyrocket, and this was not the only change in the diet of people. The agricultural industry has changed, the quantity and quality of food available to mankind has begun to grow. Around the same time, the first fast food chains appeared and more calories were suddenly available for people to consume.
In the middle of the 20th century, mortality from cardiovascular diseases rose sharply in the United States, primarily among men, and with different incomes and educational levels. Doctors and scientists drew attention to this, and then a lot of work began on the study of the relationship between nutrition and health. The experts were divided into two camps: some argued that the problem was a sharp increase in fat intake, while others – that the cause should be sought in sugar.
Which is worse – sugar or fat
One of the main opponents of fat in the diet was the American physiologist Ansel Keys. His main work is a study of how people from seven countries in four parts of the world eat, with very different diets. Case drew attention to the fact that in countries with a high content of animal fat in the diet, mortality from cardiovascular diseases was higher. The most “healthy” were the countries of the Mediterranean basin, in regions where people ate little animal fat. Case concluded that high saturated fat in the diet leads to increased cholesterol levels, which in turn causes inflammation in blood vessels and narrowing of their lumen. If this process occurs in the coronary vessels of the heart, then myocardial infarction can result.
Keyes’ ideas quickly became popular, he wrote several books on the Mediterranean diet that became bestsellers, and in 1961 he even made the cover of Time magazine. His recommendations for saturated fat went mainstream: on the one hand, they fit into the modern understanding of health science, and on the other, they gave the opportunity to representatives of the health care system to voice at least some answers to the public. As a result, saturated fat has long become the main enemy of healthy eating, and the fight against butter has developed in other countries. Demand for foods that are low in saturated fat began to grow, and the food industry adjusted to the fat-fighting trend. True, in order to preserve the attractiveness of products, manufacturers began to replace fat with sugar.
Not everyone agreed with Case’s ideas – for example, John Yudkin, one of Britain’s leading nutritionists, saw sugar as a problem. Yudkin’s hypothesis linked increased sugar intake to metabolic disorders, including changes in insulin secretion, which, in his opinion, led to diabetes mellitus and vascular disease. But at that time Yudkin was not supported: his ideas contradicted the current state of science. The British sugar industry saw him as a threat – according to the specialist himself, the producers of the sweets intervened in decisions related to grants and support for his research. Until the moment when his ideas were listened to, the scientist did not live.
Conflict of interest
By the turn of the 21st century, it was found that while people were eating less saturated fat, their problems with diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease had not diminished. There is a growing body of research on the possible dangers of high-carb diets and added sugar. With fats, everything turned out to be not so simple either: it turned out that there are “healthy” fats; Scientists began to conclude that saturated fat may be a risk factor, but not the only cause of vascular disease.
The standards for writing research papers have also changed: now it’s harder to hide a conflict of interest. This was not always the case, and in the 20th century, the food industry became involved in both research and the development of dietary guidelines. A fresh look at past research shows that when scientists were involved with the sugar industry, they were more likely to “ prove ” that sugar was not associated with obesity or metabolic disorders. In 2016, a study was published , according to which the food industry took a significant role in shaping health policy in the 1960s and 1970s – this led to the demonization of fat and the almost complete disregard of the effects of sucrose.
What scientists are saying now
Today, it is believed that excess sugar in the diet may be a risk factor for metabolic disorders, obesity and cardiovascular problems. Large amounts of sugar support subclinical (that is, not manifesting itself) inflammation – and this contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, depression and increased mortality. It is impossible to talk about a direct connection between sugar and cancer (sometimes you can hear that “cancer cells feed on glucose,” that is, refusing sugar will supposedly help prevent or even cure cancer – but not everything is so simple ). True, there is still an indirect link: excess calories in food contributes to weight gain and obesity, and this has been proven to increase the risk of thirteen different types of malignant tumors.
WHO divides sugars into “free” and “natural” – the latter are found in vegetables and fruits, and free sugars are meant mono- and disaccharides added to food, as well as components of honey, syrups and fruit juices. The WHO strongly recommends limiting free sugars intake to ten percent of the total caloric intake (on average, about 60 grams of sugar per day), for additional benefit it is recommended to reduce this amount by another half – so that no more than 5 % of energy comes from sugars .
Measuring the amount of sugar people eat is tricky – it is added literally everywhere. It is believed that the average US resident consumes seventeen teaspoons of sugar a day. According to the Ministry of Agriculture of the Russian Federation from 2017, the average Russian’s daily diet contains about 100 grams of sugar – this also exceeds the WHO recommendations. Sources of sugar are not limited to candy, cakes, and soda. It is found in fruit juices, cornflakes, breads, fruit yoghurts, sauces like ketchup, and even chips and sausages.
Is there a sugar addiction
You can often hear about the “addiction” to sugar – sometimes it is even compared to cocaine and heroin. Indeed, sugar stimulates the production of dopamine and brings an acute sensation of pleasure – once this mechanism helped to survive , however, fruits and vegetables were the sweetest for our ancestors. Cocaine, nicotine and other narcotic substances also affect the mechanisms of dopamine production and cause pleasure that you want to repeat – that’s why some experts put sugar on a par with drugs. A 2007 study is often cited , where experimental mice were tried to “put” on cocaine and sugar – and the dependence on sugar was stronger. However, there are currently no studies showing sugar dependence comparable to drug addiction in humans.
However, frequent and high consumption of sugar can be addictive – when a higher dose is needed for comparable “pleasure”. Sweets bring physical satisfaction – and it is with chocolate and ice cream that you often want to seize a conflict at work or a quarrel with loved ones. Of course, if the situation is not reflected, it can lead to an excess of sugar in the diet with all its negative consequences.
Complete failure or balance
Nutritionists never tire of reminding you that balance and variety are key to diets . Avoiding sugar altogether or switching to sugar substitutes does not necessarily mean that the quality of the diet will improve – and conversely, sugar can very well be part of a balanced diet that brings joy. Sugar substitutes are not harmful in themselves, but they interfere with rebuilding habits when, instead of replacing sweet with fruits or nuts, a person replaces sweet with sweet.
It is worth working on changing habits, introducing more vegetables, fruits and berries into the diet, eating fewer industrial products like ready-made sauces, bread or protein bars – in such a food with a seemingly savory taste, there can be surprisingly a lot of added sugar. As with trans fats or salt, you need to cook at home a lot and read food labels to know how much sugar you are eating. Gradually, the sweet taste will become stronger – and the food in general may seem more delicious.