Bags of brown and white sugar

A guide to sugar

You bake with it, sprinkle it over food, and add it to hot drinks. Sugar makes things taste sweeter. But what are the side effects of eating or drinking too much sugar?

Sugar is a natural food, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Sugar contains very few essential nutrients, and has no protein or fats, very few vitamins or minerals, and no fibre. It’s essentially a pure carbohydrate. While there’s no reason to fear carbohydrates (it’s a useful form of energy for our body and brain after all), most of us tend to eat too many so cutting back on sugar is a good way to lower your carb intake.

What is sugar?

Sugar is a blanket term for lots of different forms of short-chain carbohydrates. Table sugar is sucrose but there’s more to sugar than just the white granulated stuff. The sugars we eat fall into two categories; monosaccharides and disaccharides.

Monosaccharides are glucose/dextrose, fructose and galactose. Glucose is plant sugar and is in most carbohydrate foods. When it is in fruit and vegetables, it’s healthy and important for the body. When it’s in glucose syrups, it’s not so healthy. Fructose is fruit sugar, and found in fruits, vegetables, and honey. Galactose is part of lactose, the sugars in milk and dairy products.

Disaccharides are sucrose, lactose and maltose. Sucrose is table sugar (glucose and fructose), usually labelled as granulated, demerara, or caster sugar. If a food has “added sugars”, they are probably sucrose. Lactose (glucose and galactose) is the sugar in milk and dairy products. You’ll also find it in dry mixes like sauces and soups. Maltose is formed when starch breaks down, and is in malted drinks, beer, and glucose syrups.

How many calories does sugar have?

All sugars are almost pure carbohydrate. As a general rule, 10g sugar contains 10g carbohydrates and 40 calories.

Sugar and dieting

Sugar is tasty, calorie dense, and easy to over-eat. If you are trying to stick to a healthier diet, or control your calories to lose weight, you would do well to avoid all extra added sugar. Get your energy from more nutrient dense foods, and your happy hormones from exercise and non-food rewards.

Sugar isn’t unhealthy and shouldn’t be demonised as a bad food. But it should always be looked at in the context of your health, your nutrition habits, and your diet goals. Sugar provides a lot of energy, which can be a good and a bad thing. We all need energy and our brains need carbohydrate but too much energy is stored as body fat.

Make sure your diet consists of a variety of foods. Eat fresh, nutritious foods and try to cook more of your food at home rather than relying on processed foods. Keep active and stay fit. Limit your sugar intake to meet your energy needs, and have a look at our sugar alternatives.

If you are trying to manage your weight, the main problem with sugar is that it is so calorie dense. It is pure carbohydrate, with no protein, vitamins, minerals, or essential fats. You need to focus on nutrient dense foods, not empty calories. If you eat less sugar and more nutritious food, your health and waistline will benefit.

The health risks of sugar

Sugar is easy to over-eat and cutting back on your intake will definitely benefit your short term and long term health. You’ll also be setting a great example for younger members of the family and reduce your chances of the following risks:

Sugar contributes to serious disease

We all know that sugar can be bad for our teeth. But too much sugar is a leading contributor to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers. Excessive sugar intake can raise triglycerides and oxidized LDL, increase your blood glucose and insulin levels and contribute to obesity. These are all major health risk factors.

Sugar is addictive

Eating sugar releases pleasure hormones into the reward centre of our brain. But this feeling quickly wears off. And because calories from sugar don’t fill us up as much as energy from other foods, we are left craving more.

Sugar can make us fat

Not all sugars are created equal, particularly ‘free’ or added sugars. They’re often found in junk foods such as ready meals, biscuits or puddings that also contain unhealthy ingredients such as saturated fats, which is why they can contribute to weight gain. Added sugars can also be hidden in foods such as ketchup, sauces and fruit juice. Free sugars are ‘empty calories’ too; they contain very few nutrients so they only contribute extra calories to your diet.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) say added sugars should only make up 10 per cent of our daily diet, around 200 calories in a 2000-calorie diet, but now believe the limit should be just 5 per cent. We get around 12 per cent of our calories from added sugars – well over the recommended amount. Try to cut your added sugar intake to 100 calories a day by choosing natural sugar alternatives such as Stevia, agave syrup or honey, and base your diet around whole foods rather than processed foods.

Sugar could trigger diabetes

Sugary foods often have a high glycaemic index (GI), meaning they’re quickly digested and absorbed, triggering a rapid rise in blood glucose, or blood sugar. Your body then produces insulin to get glucose out of the blood and into your muscles and liver. Over time, repeated cycles of blood sugar highs and lows can cause the body to become resistant to insulin, triggering diabetes.

Sticking to a healthy balanced diet with plenty of low GI foods can keep your blood glucose levels steady, reducing your risk of developing diabetes. Eat lots of whole grain foods, beans, low-fat dairy, porridge oats, fresh fruit and vegetables, and nuts and seeds to help stabilise your blood glucose.

Sugar causes wrinkles

Apart from internal damage, sugar could also contribute to the ageing process. When we eat sugary foods, sugar molecules bind to protein structures such as collagen and elastin that help keep skin plump, and weaken them so they lose their elasticity. The fibres then become stiff, brittle and prone to breaking – a process called glycation – causing sagging and wrinkles. So avoiding high GI foods like white bread and biscuits could also help you avoid crow’s feet!

Sugar can be addictive

Animal studies have discovered that sugary foods stimulate the same parts of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine, while a study by Yale University found our bodies don’t know when we’ve had enough of some types of sugar. While glucose suppresses the parts of the brain that make us hungry, fructose does not; we simply can’t tell when we’ve eaten too much.

But critics say most of this research is based on high-fructose corn syrup. Although widely used in food and drinks in the US, we eat very little in the UK so there’s less cause for concern. Fruit does contain natural fructose, but in very small amounts. It’s also full of fibre and vitamins, so cut processed foods out of your diet rather than fruit and veggies to limit your fructose intake.

Sugar damages our teeth

There’s no dispute that sugar is bad for our teeth. The bacteria in your mouth use it to produce acid, which causes tooth decay. Over time, tooth enamel breaks down, which causes holes. You may then need fillings or, worse, your tooth may have to be removed.

Eating sugar-free foods and using sweeteners to replace sugar can reduce the number of attacks on your teeth. The British Dental Health Foundation says the sweetener Xylitol in particular can help protect your teeth, as it prevents bacteria from sticking to them and could even replace the minerals in tooth enamel.

Obesity in children and adults

Sugary foods don’t fill us up and they make portion control difficult. Be aware that sugar could put you at risk of a fatter future. It could even lead to obesity and all the health risks that come with it.

There’s no need to demonise sugar completely. But get control of your sugar consumption and you will face a healthier future. Be aware of how much you eat, start reading food labels, and see how much sugar is in the food and drink you enjoy.

Sugar has become the latest evil in our diets, linked to a number of conditions such as obesity and diabetes. US health experts are even calling for sugar to be regulated like tobacco or alcohol, they believe it to be so harmful to our health.

Should we still eat fruit?

High levels of industrial fructose are bad for you, but eating fruit isn’t. One 2013 study clearly found1 that industrial, not fruit, fructose lead to various metabolic conditions. Other research has found that processed fructose was correlated with high blood pressure, but fructose from fruit was not.2 Another study found that people who ate a moderate amount of fruit actually did better in a weight loss test than those who restricted all fructose intake3. The bottom line is that whole fruits act differently from processed fructose additives. While you should absolutely eliminate products with added fructose from your diet, you should also absolutely keep eating fruit.

Found that interesting? Get more insider info with our diet and weight loss guides.

This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies. Shop our Food and Drink range