Sugar - as bad for you as cigarettes?

Sugar - as bad for you as cigarettes?

As host of the healthy eating make-over show Eat Yourself Sexy, it's easy to believe Sarah Wilson would find clean living a cinch, but that could hardly be further from the truth.

Until 18 months ago, she found herself fighting a common but misunderstood addiction - sugar.

Tell most people you're addicted to chocolate and you'll usually get a friendly chortle or wink of recognition. But there is growing evidence to suggest sugar is just as addictive - and dangerous - as other better known vices like nicotine.

Wilson had been told by doctors to reduce her sugar intake, but found the task a difficult one, despite knowing it was affecting her health.

''I have an auto-immune disease and had been told for years I should quit sugar,'' she said.

''[But] the idea was far too scary to contemplate, as it is for most - tell someone to quit, say, peanuts and they just don't shudder in the same way.''

Sugar has become such a dominant component in many Western diets that it is virtually unavoidable in many of the daily staples we eat - not just treats like sweets and fizzy drinks.

While health experts have for some time warned that our per capita consumption of sugar is too high, there is growing medical evidence to suggest its impact on our health is more severe than previously thought.

An article published in the British Medical Journal in 2007 likened sugar to cigarettes and called for controls to be placed upon it.

''Sugar is as dangerous as tobacco [and] should be classified as a hard drug, for it is harmful and addictive,'' it said.

Sugar and what it is doing to the national waistline has become a hot topic in Australia recently, following the success of such books as David Gillespie's Sweet Poison and the follow-up title, The Sweet Poison Quit Plan.

 

But there are some who warn focusing solely on one ingredient is risky.

The Australian Dieticians Association has urged the nation not to view sugar as the sole culprit in the obesity epidemic.

''It's like blaming only the coach for a whole football team's poor performance,'' a spokeswoman said.

''It's part of the picture, but not the whole picture.''

Wilson, who grew up in Canberra, has written an e-book about her experiences in giving up sugar, which stemmed from a decision made in 2010 to take baby steps in an effort to break the habit once and for all. ''I decided to experiment with the idea and quit for two weeks,'' she said. ''I wrote about it for the newspaper column I was writing at the time.

''It felt so good, so right - I lost weight immediately and had much better energy - that I just kept going and going. It's been 18 months now.''

David Gillespie, who shed 40 kilograms by ditching the sweet stuff, said Australians were overly focused on the fat content of their diets, at the expense of other areas.

''What's wrong with our thinking on obesity in Australia at the moment is that it's very fat-centric,'' he said.

''The reality is that Australians are eating a lot less fat now than when that story was being told to us 30 years ago but we're all a lot fatter now than we were 30 years ago.

''So clearly there is something wrong with the story, and the science behind it just does not stack up.

''So I decided to implement an experiment of one - on me, which was for me to stop eating anything that tasted sweet.''

Gillespie said his time as a human lab-rat yielded eye-opening results.

''The interesting thing was that within a few weeks my appetite control returned,'' he said.

''I was not able to eat anywhere as much as I could've before and I started losing weight. It wasn't rapid, it was about a kilo a week, but it was happening and it was happening consistently without feeling like I was on a diet.''

In all, he lost 40 kilos.

Gillespie said sugar was not just in the desserts and confectionery aisles, but hiding in the savoury foods as well.

''The more sugar we eat, the more we want,'' he said. ''Food manufacturers exploit our sugar addiction by lacing it through 'non-sweet' products, such as bread, sauces, soups and cereals.''

Wilson said she felt the same pull towards foods she felt addicted to. ''Leaving aside the very serious health issues - cholesterol, fatty liver, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and diabetes - I think the real problem is its addictiveness,'' she said.

''We are prisoners to sugar - in part because we lack the hormone to tell us when we're eating it … so we keep eating it and eating it. By contrast, we have hormones that tell us when we've eaten enough fat and protein.

''If we weren't so addicted we wouldn't be killing ourselves with it … we'd have done something about it.

''Before I cut it out I was on a daily energy rollercoaster, needing to eat every few hours and needing sugar at regular intervals. I seductively convinced myself I was eating 'good' sugar - honey, health muffins etc - which only made things worse.''

Wilson used her experience to push herself into research in the topic and produce the title I Quit Sugar.

''I had researched the topic thoroughly and had formulated the best way to quit - so you don't have withdrawal, so you lose weight and so you can stay off it for good. I outline these in my I Quit Sugar: a sweet eight-week program e-book.''

But it hasn't been all easy all the way, with the topic attracting some critics.

''I got a lot of push-back - mostly from dieticians,'' she said.

''Some dieticians and nutritionists are paid by 'sugary' companies to promote their products … whenever they resist my message, I simply say I can't take their arguments seriously while ever there are vested interests at play.''