Sugar isn’t evil, it’s processed foods that aren’t so sweet
Ahhhh, another week, another journo looking to drop a few kilos in the limelight and yet another prime time television report on the evilness of sugar. This time from Channel 7’s Sunday Night. To date I have been reluctant to comment on the somewhat sensationalised media reports pointing the finger at sugar as the primary cause of the nation’s obesity issues. There are a few reasons for my hesitation.
Firstly, I feel as if the sugar story has been done to death over the past 12 months. Secondly, I feel as if we are somewhat arguing the obvious. And finally, it seems to be an argument in which scientific debate has been all too readily replaced with personal views—a strong-minded lawyer’s opinion and now the personal weight-loss experience of one of Australia’s favourite rugby sons.
Indeed, emotions will always generally beat logic, at least in a 3 minute television segment or within a few lines of a press release. So, here’s what I think, and I think I have a point of view that should at least be considered in this debate given that I see hundreds of people each year for weight loss.
Before we begin, and before you rush to empty the fruit bowl, let’s simply start our discussion with a small amount of context. Much of the recent Australian media hype surrounding the health issues associated with sugar consumption have been pushed by a single, unqualified, powerfully speaking, legally trained professional who himself found dietary success by eliminating “sugar” from his diet.
What is less frequently discussed in this context is that if you eliminate processed food from your diet you will lose weight. In fact, by eliminating anything from your diet, whether it is sugar, alcohol, fat or processed carbohydrates, you will lose weight. Unfortunately this is not an exciting media story.
Many of us already know that a natural diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and dairy will control your weight long term and the reality is that a pie at the footy or a bag of red frogs at the movies are often all too appealing for the average person to maintain these “elimination” styles of dieting.
Instead, if we declare sugar as the new evil enemy and as the primary cause of obesity, now we have a great headline, with a convincing lawyer as readily available TV and radio talent to back it up.
There is nothing toxic about sugar. If sugar was toxic, fruit would not be based on it and the argument against fructose is scientifically incorrect. I don’t want to bore you with hours and hours of biochemistry but basically many of claims made in titles such as Sweet Poison are sensationalised and ill-informed.
Now, before all the “sugar detox” converts start sending in passionate replies defending the movement, please take some time to consider what else I have to say.
The issue we have is not with sugar itself – the issue is with processed carbohydrates and these are very different things. Processed carbohydrates refer to any form of carbohydrate containing food that is not in a naturally occurring state. For example, fruit bars versus fruit itself, or white bread versus quinoa or high fructose corn syrup versus corn.
When any form of carbohydrate - whether it be sugar, wheat or fruit - is processed it results in higher than normal releases of glucose into the bloodstream. High and fluctuating blood glucose levels are what make us fat over time.
So, I am not defending sugar, rather stating the fact that isolating sugar is simply demonstrating a lack of understanding of physiology, biochemistry and ultimately fat metabolism.
Over the past 10 to 20 years, the Western world has seen rapid rises in obesity, diabetes and possibly some cancers as our diet contains too many processed carbohydrates and because we spend far too much time sitting down.
Sugar to some degree may be a part of it, but when we speak of sugar we are really speaking about processed foods, not the sugar that most people are thinking of, and the one which slightly ignorant individuals are kicking around in the media as the biggest of all dietary evils.
Anyway, as a practicing clinician, all I am interested in is useful messages that my clients can take away to help them control their weight and their glucose levels for life. So, what does this mean within the sugar story? It means get rid of as much processed carbohydrate from your diet as possible – the white bread, sweetened yoghurts and desserts, snack foods, juice, extra sauces and syrups.
This way you not only get rid of the added sugars but you also get rid of the processed carbs which are doing you the damage, long term. A piece of fruit does not make you fat, but a highly refined carbohydrate diet will, and this is what most of us still have, with or without the sugar.
But most importantly, you need to move your body more, because the more you move your body, the more efficiently the muscles learn to burn the carbohydrates, including sugars.
Eliminating the sugar may help you lose 13kg quickly, but moving your body for the rest of your life, cutting back on the beers after footy and avoiding heavily refined carbohydrates will keep you lean for life.
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