The truth about sugar

The role of sugar in health has been long-contended. In part, this is because of all the differing definitions of ‘sugar’: raw, unrefined, cane, free, fructose, glucose, glucose-fructose, high fructose corn syrup… so why all the fuss?

When you consume more sugar than your body needs, it stores the excess as fat – under the skin (that you see) and around your organs (that you don’t see). And this is dangerous.

Being overweight increases your risks of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and tooth decay – amongst other things. This is well-known.

Diabetes, for example, is caused by insulin resistance. This means that your body stops responding to insulin. When you eat sugar, it enters your bloodstream, your body detects this and releases insulin which helps transport glucose out of the blood and into your body tissues to be used for energy or stored as fat. If you constantly are having too much sugar, your body – to put it very simply! – stops responding to insulin and the levels of sugar in your blood remain very high. This has all sorts of health effects and people with diabetes risk losing their sight, losing the function of their kidneys and having problems with their blood vessels. In fact, the leading cause of death in diabetics is heart disease, commonly from blockage of these blood vessels preventing oxygen from supplying the heart muscle.

So, what is sugar?

1 x sugar units “monosaccharide”:

  • glucose, fructose, galactose

2 x sugar units “disaccharide”:

  • lactose = glucose + galactose
  • sucrose = glucose + fructose
  • maltose = glucose + glucose

Multiple sugar units “polysaccharide” – “complex carbohydrates”

Refined and unrefined sugars- what does this actually mean?!

The WHO (World Health Organisation, not the band) actually don’t differentiate between these two types of sugar in their reports on cutting down sugar in your diet.

They simply talk about cutting down ‘free sugars’.

‘Free sugars’ are monosaccharides and disaccharides which are added to foods, not those which occur naturally in fruit and veg.

“Raw sugar” “unrefined sugar” “natural sugar” – these are all free sugars according to the WHO.

And the WHO have a major role in evidence-based public health and the health guidelines in this country are frequently informed by what the WHO say.  – i.e. we can trust their judgement!

My point is this: sugar is sugar is sugar. Once they’ve been digested, all sugars go into your blood and insulin will be released – no matter what type of sugar it started off as!

Maple syrup is about 70% sucrose. i.e. white sugar

Honey is about 70% sugar – 40% fructose and 30% glucose.

Coconut sugar is about 70% sucrose too. i.e. white sugar

 So why are these marketed as “healthy” alternatives?

Honey has a lot of health benefits – if it’s good stuff that is! Once during one of my hospital placements, I watched a nurse apply manuka honey to a patient’s wound. This has recognised anti-bacterial properties.

Coconut sugar is also high in potassium – you get about 25% of your daily intake in 100g (20 odd teaspoons!) of the stuff – but by this point, the health effects are pretty minimal next to such a sugar load.

Maple syrup also has trace vitamins and minerals alongside its whopping sugar content.

The point is you need to be ensuring your diet is low in sugar – in whatever form it sits on your plate as – because a diet high in excess sugars has significant health effects. But remember! That’s a diet high in excess sugars, not just any sugar at all. It’s perfectly fine to have in your diet, just not too much of it.

Everything in moderation. (Have I said that before?)

There’s a reason the WHO suggest only 3 of our 10-a-day are sourced from fruits: because they’re generally higher in sugar than our veg.

Be mindful and sensible and balanced in your approach – keep your sugar intake low and your exercise high so you can reduce your risk of disease in later life.





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