Reality check: Do you really need to cut out sugar to improve your health?

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Should you be avoiding sugar in your diet?
WATCH ABOVE: Should you be avoiding sugar in your diet? – Mar 19, 2018

Completely cutting sugar out of your diet is unlikely to improve your health any more than cutting down on processed food, eating more vegetables and cooking from scratch, an article from The Independent claims.

According to article author Tara Leong, a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at the University of the Sunshine Coast, being on a sugar-free diet is “confusing and imposes an arbitrary set of rules that aren’t based on scientific evidence.”

READ MORE: Scientists make breakthrough in linking sugar to cancer growth

Among her other arguments, Leong says restrictive diets can create “food fear” and/or an unhealthy relationship with food.

Restricting certain foods may trigger a diet mentality. Diets, she says, are not only ineffective over the long term, they also induce stress and sway people to restrict otherwise healthy foods (like fruit and milk).

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She also argues that sugar replacements still contain sugars and the same number of calories per gram as other sugar options.

“People often eat more of the food containing these alternatives under the guise of it being sugar-free, which could lead to unintentional weight gain,” Leong wrote. “One study found people ate about 35 per cent more of a snack when it was perceived as healthy than when it was seen an unhealthy.”

So are Leong’s claims true?

According to registered dietitians Andy De Santis and Andrea D’Ambrosio, Leong may be onto something.

Fearing and avoiding sugar, De Santis says, can lead to the unintended consequence of avoiding healthy foods that contain sugar, like fruit, for example.

“That’s a real problem for me as fruits are nutrient and antioxidant rich foods, which are low in calories per serving and extremely important for good health and longevity,” De Santis says.

D’Ambrosio agrees.

“The restriction and negative feelings surrounding food leads to binge behaviours and [dieters] throwing their hands up wondering what they can eat,” D’Ambrosio says. “This article cuts back on the sensational ‘sugar-free’ diet and brings awareness to the contradictions and what that actually means, and the risks of restricting otherwise healthy foods – like fruit and milk – without evidence to support their exclusion.”
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And by restricting these foods and others like it, you may be at risk of developing nutrient deficiencies, D’Ambrosio says.

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“It is very important to note that there is a big difference between added sugars versus naturally occurring sugars,” she says. “When it comes to recommendations from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, for example, they recommend adults and children limit consumption of added sugar to no more than 10 per cent of their daily calorie intake.”

This, she says, equates to 12 teaspoons of added sugar daily, which is less than half of the current average intake of 25 teaspoons of added sugars daily.

There are several types of sugars to be aware of.

The first is sucrose, which is often referred to as table sugar. It’s derived from sugar beet or sugar cane and consisted of a 50/50 combination of glucose and fructose, De Santis says. It is also found naturally in fruit and may be added to food to sweeten it.

Then there’s glucose, which is found in most foods containing carbs either by itself – as a sugar in fruit or added to a processed food – or as part of a combination – such as sucrose, or starch.

Fructose is found from plant sources, especially in fruit, and some veggies, like sweet potato either by itself or as a component of sucrose. Fructose isn’t always absorbed as well by our bodies as glucose, De Santis says. For this reason, it may cause issues for people living with IBS.

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However, because high fructose corn syrup has been introduced into many of our foods, our fructose intake is higher than ever before and it has some researchers believing this is a cause for concern, De Santis says.

Lastly, there’s lactose – a naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products that is a combination of glucose and another sugar known as galactose.

READ MORE: Sugar industry suppressed health effects study 50 years ago – where do we go from here?

“Each of these sugars discussed have different levels of sweetness and different effects on our blood sugar levels, but when consumed from naturally occurring foods (like veggies and fruits) this is not something you need to spend time thinking about,” De Santis explains. “In my opinion, the only time one should worry about sugars is when you are consuming them in large amounts from foods that offer little other benefits, like cookies, cake, candy, etc.”

The best bet, D’Ambrosio says, is to avoid added sugars and encourage the consumption of naturally occurring sugars.

In fact, many studies throughout the years have linked sugar and the over-consumption of it to many health issues and risks.

For example, eating too much added sugar is linked to an increased risk of dying from heart disease, Harvard University concluded in 2014.

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Sugar has also been tied to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, liver problems, obesity and more, Healthline reports.

“Also, avoid the common myth that honey and maple syrup are better than white sugar,” she says. “They are all sugars and our body responds in the same way. These sources are also not a significant source of other nutrients.”

It’s also important to realize that just because a product is marketed as “sugar-free” doesn’t always mean it is free of sugar, both De Santis and D’Ambrosio warn.

“In Canada, the sugar-free claim can be made on a product if it contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving,” De Santis says. “So it does not technically mean it is 100 per cent free of sugars.”

The best way to decrease added sugar intake is to skip the sugary beverages, limit eating out, and limit eating processed foods, D’Ambrosio says.

“Keep in mind that sugar can be another name for carbohydrates,” D’Ambrosio says. “Carbohydrates are an important macronutrient for energy. Many health foods contain carbohydrates and sugar, such as starchy vegetables, whole grains, pulses (like beans and lentils), milk and fruits.”

Carbohydrate requirements, D’Ambrosio adds, will vary from person to person depending on gender, age and physical activity level.

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