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Are you addicted to sugar?

Date

Sarah Berry

If you're not sure, try quitting. A total sugar detox is tough but rewarding, writes Sarah Berry.

Sweetly seductive ... sugar provides comfort from stress and boredom.

Sweetly seductive ... sugar provides comfort from stress and boredom.

Sugar is the femme fatale of the food world. Equal parts seductive and evil, it whispers sweet nothings to our tastebuds and then does its damage once it slips past our lips. It has been linked to obesity and diabetes, it could be cancer-causing and it might even make us stupid.

Despite this, we are left begging for more of the sweet stuff even while it has its wily way with us. But as this villain du jour snuck its way into formerly healthy foods, it was caught red-handed in everything from bread to sauce to spreads and has been on public trial ever since.

Is it inherently evil or just empty calories that we eat too much of? This has been the subject of a vociferous trial, with experts equally pillorying or defending its saccharin charms.

It's toxic, tax it like booze, cried one group of prominent researchers. Sugar is not the problem. In fact, we're eating less of it than we were 30 years ago, Australian experts contested, in this controversial and strongly challenged claim. The problem is that sugar depletes leptin - our satiating hormone - and this means we don't know when we've had enough, argued Dr Tony Goldstone of the Imperial College in London. It's fine if it's in moderate amounts, countered the Department of Health and Ageing.

But, the question is always at what dose does a substance go from being harmless to harmful? How much, asked Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, do we have to consume before this happens?

While experts continue to bat that question out, some suggest we take our own stand on the issue.

In her recent ebook, I Quit Sugar, Sarah Wilson challenges readers to an eight-week sugar detox as an experiment in how sugar-dependent we've become and to see the effect it's having on our bodies and lives.

"We have a gnarly, deep-rooted resistance to quitting sugar," she writes. "We grow up with a full-on emotional and physical attachment to sugar. Just the idea of not being able to turn to it when we're feeling a little lost or tired or bored or emotionally bereft terrifies us."

In part, inspired by the popular and provocative Sweet Poison, by David Gillespie (which was criticised by Nutrition Australia in this open letter, it takes aim primarily at fructose.) Gillespie, and others, say that the problem with fructose is essentially that it is a liver-loader and that the way it is metabolised by the body is harmful. “Eating fructose is like eating fat that your body can't detect as fat … and makes us eat more fat,” he says.

So, as part of the I Quit Sugar challenge, fruit is out. At least to start with. "I don't think it's a good thing to demonise fruit," Wilson says. "I just found it helpful to cut it out for two months while my body rebalanced."

I lasted about two weeks on the fruit-free part of the detox, and fell off the chocolate wagon more than once too. But, like Wilson, after the eight weeks, even with a ramped up fat-intake, I certainly felt less foggy and puffy, my skin was smoother and I was more energetic. My immunity feels stronger as a result and I lost the sense of regularly teetering on the edge of illness. I also noticed how easy it is to use sugar as an emotional crutch - when you can't have it, you very quickly become aware of how often you want to reach for it to subdue stress, anxiety or sadness. Wilson encourages you to eat fat "For both psychological reasons (so we don't get depressed and frustrated from the deprivation) and for physiological reasons (so our bodies don't go into famine mode)."

Luckily, Wilson's approach is not rigid. "Diets don't work, forcing doesn't work. The human experience doesn't respond to 'restrictive thinking'. I've found that being kind and nurturing with yourself does work. You're doing this, not because you have to but, because it might make you feel better ... you don't have to commit beyond [eight weeks] if you don't want to." And when you fall off the wagon, you gently dust off the chocolate crumbs and jump back on.

But, Maria Packard, spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, questions quitting sugar in the first place. "From a dietitian's point of view we believe it's a bit simplistic to blame sugar alone [on health and weight problems]," she says. "Obviously it's a complex issue ... Look at the whole picture, not just one ingredient. Have a wide variety of nutritious foods and still enjoy small amounts of sweets - it's about lifestyle."

For instance, if having a sprinkle of sugar on your porridge makes you eat the porridge then it's well worth it, Packard says. "From a practical point of view we recommend a wide variety of nutritious foods ... We can only go on the evidence. Fruit has fibre ... it's not just sugar."

As for the various forms of sweetener, "They're all suitable choices as a part of healthy eating," Packard says.

But, again the jury seems to be out on that one. Agave, for instance, is low GI but, around 90 per cent fructose, so whether it's a good alternative to table sugar or not is debatable. Sticking to less of the sweet stuff in general, whatever its form, seems to be the key.

And until the experts come up with something conclusive about exactly how much that is and in what form, figuring out whether sugar and its aliases are really the devil in disguise might be a question best asked of your own body.

A guide to alternative sweeteners

After the eight weeks is up Wilson suggests alternatives to fructose/sugar to soothe a sweet-toothed craving. But, again what many in the anti-fructose camp favour is in contrast to what other health professionals suggest. Part of the reason for this is because of the Glycemic Index, which is how quickly the body will digest and absorb sugar, author and dietitian Tara Diversi explains. "Fructose is what makes [certain sweeteners] low-GI, because it is absorbed slower by the gut." She explains that, in processed foods, you can make something low-GI by adding fat or protein or vinegar. For this reason, she says "Low GI is a great concept, but it should be used for whole foods [where the GI levels occur naturally and not as a result of additional processing.]"

Rice syrup or rice malt syrup is made by culturing rice to break down enzymes. Wilson is an advocate. Diversi says, as with all sweeteners it "depends on how much you're having."

Stevia is a natural alternative derived from a leaf, it contains no fructose and gets the tick from Wilson and Diversi alike. "It's intensely sweet," Diversi says. "So, you don't use very much ... it's a good option."

Glucose/dextrose "Both types of carbohydrates but, dextrose not absorbed as quickly," Diversi says. Essentially dextrose without fructose, Wilson says. It's the only type of 'sugar' David Gillespie recommends.

Sucrose is cane sugar. It's 50/50 glucose and fructose so there's a moderate digestion rate. Not at all recommended by the anti-fructose camp, but Diversi stressed that "It's not evil and if parent give their children a little, they're not dooming them to a life of diabetes and heart disease."

Fructose is fruit sugar. As above, there are many who are questioning fructose, but even the anti-fructose camp say it metabolises differently when it's in fruit and tend to recommend a couple of pieces per day.

Honey, maple syrup and molasses (which isn't as sweet) are all natural alternatives with varying fructose and GI levels. They're good options, according to Diversi, but "having anything sweet is more likely to keep us wanting more sweetness, rather than getting our palates used to less of it."

Agave is similar to stevia. It's another good option and is sweeter than normal sugar, so we tend to use less. But, Wilson warns that it is around 90 per cent fructose.

Artificial sweeteners

Reports are conflicting about the safety of artificial sweeteners. But, they are "a good option if you're trying to reduce sugar," Diversi says. "The myths [about them causing cancer] aren't true, but they don't make people eat less sugar overall."

41 comments

  • Im surprised that Xylitol wasnt mentioned by the experts as a good alternative to sugar.

    Commenter
    mrsPeg
    Location
    melbourne
    Date and time
    August 14, 2012, 2:36PM
    • Pretty typical of "dietician" Tara Diversi mentioned in the article, misinforming the public with very dangerous advice on much of what she says...

      but I take particular exception to the "myths of artificial sweeteners and they are safe" when they most definately are not. The authorities such as the FDA and CDC say that too, even though they don't actually do any independent testing of aspartame or any other products.

      The FDA says on their own website:
      "When metabolized by the body, aspartame is broken down into two common amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and a third substance, methanol. "

      Methanol is broken down in the body into formaldehyde, which carcinogenic, according to various cancer institutes and many studies have been done on this:
      http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/formaldehyde

      Here's an independent testing done on aspartame (one of many):
      http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.10271
      (this study concluded - The results of this carcinogenicity bioassay confirm and reinforce the first experimental demonstration of APM’s multipotential carcinogenicity at a dose level close to the acceptable daily intake for humans. Furthermore, the study demonstrates that when life-span exposure to APM begins during fetal life, its carcinogenic effects are increased.)

      Or better yet, to display the disparity between independent and industry-funded "research":
      http://dorway.com/aspartame-the-bad-news-repost/peer-reviewed-aspartame-studies/

      which states that "Studies of aspartame in the peer reviewed medical literature were surveyed for funding source and study outcome. Of the 166 studies felt to have relevance for questions of human safety, 74 had Nutrasweet® industry related funding and 92 were independently funded. One hundred percent of the industry funded research attested to aspartame’s safety, whereas 92% of the independently funded research identified a problem. A bibliography supplied by the Nutrasweet® Company included many studies of questionable validity and relevance, with multiple instances of the same study being cited up to 6 times. "

      Commenter
      Mossy
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      August 14, 2012, 11:40PM
    • Not all sugars are created equal; you have honey, palm sugar, maple syrup, sugar cane juice, brown sugar, raw sugar, beetroot juice, grape juice concentrate, etc. Why does everyone look for a quick and easy manufactured Diet Sugar substitute when mother nature has already thought of that....think outside that manufactured box!

      Commenter
      Black Palm
      Date and time
      August 15, 2012, 2:18PM
  • It's good to sit on the sidelines with sugar and survive with much, much less than the spoon here and popdrink there that tended to go on all day. I've done a bit of de-sugaring and as I advance along the sugar free path I still find that some things are too sweet even though I've curbed once or twice and more adjustments are made. I feel like I've beaten a major addiction that I never knew I had.

    Commenter
    I'm sweet, ta.
    Date and time
    August 14, 2012, 2:39PM
    • Not sure about the science, but I gave up refined sugars a while ago, and now whenever I have something with refined sugar it feels like I've taken a hit of speed. I also get a terrible come down, where I get cranky with people easily. Don't get this with unrefined sugars. Even cane-sugar, taken in its unrefined form (called Rapadura) is fine - it's not the product that's the problem, just the way it's handled.

      My kids have been brought up pretty much without refined sugars. They are very calm most of the time. But on the few occasions when my son (four) has had refined sugar, he has exhibited classic ADHD symptoms. Wonder how many of these cases are diet-related.

      Commenter
      Angus28
      Date and time
      August 14, 2012, 2:49PM
      • There's also coconut sugar. It's also low GI and full of potassium, zinc, iron, amino acids & vitamin B. It's also yummy and malty like brown sugar, and can be used 1:1 in cooking so you don't need to make adjustments to recipes.

        Commenter
        Howsey
        Location
        Redfern
        Date and time
        August 14, 2012, 2:52PM
        • If having a sprinkle of sugar on your porridge makes you eat the porridge then...it's even more sinister than I imagined....

          Commenter
          rilestar
          Location
          Melbs
          Date and time
          August 14, 2012, 3:10PM
          • I've been mostly sugar free for about 10 years; after a nasty dentist visit convinced me to give it up. I have sugar maybe once a week. It's nicer when it's a treat, anyways. And normal food tastes sweeter when you aren't eating sugar in everything all day!

            Commenter
            Tegs
            Date and time
            August 14, 2012, 3:28PM
            • This study is industry funded (requires scrutiny but not instant dismissal) , it uses realistic dosages - The effects of four hypocaloric diets containing different levels of sucrose or high fructose corn syrup on weight loss and related parameters http://www.nutritionj.com/content/pdf/1475-2891-11-55.pdf which demonstrated that "Similar decreases in weight and indices of adiposity are observed when overweight or obese individuals are fed hypocaloric diets containing levels of sucrose or high fructose corn syrup typically consumed by adults in the United States." The levels were 10 and 20% of total calories!

              Other good takes on the overkill on the fructose story and the effects of demonising one nutrient;
              Perils of a Sugar-Coated Scapegoat http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/sugar-diet_b_1553284.html

              as well as Sugar Showdown: Science Responds to "Fructophobia" http://evolvinghealthscience.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/sugar-showdown-science-responds-to.html

              This last story contains links to an hour and a half worth of videos from some of the top academics including Dr Lustig (if you only watch one video make it the Q&A one and you will see that Dr Lustig doesn't do so well against his peers vs news reporters!)

              I have also set up this website to address the misquoting and misrepresentation behind the 'science' and evidence that David Gillespie claims supports his position - http://davidgillespiesbigfatlies.com/

              Commenter
              David Driscoll
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              August 14, 2012, 3:30PM
              • David, you don't understand the mechanism for weight gain if you are quoting those calorie-controlled studies. The point is that sugar increases your appetite. Therefore you eat MORE calories than you otherwise would need to feel full, because sugar is not filling. So calorie-controlled studies are pointless, because they are a total fiction when it comes to real life.

                Weight is only one issue associated with sugar consumption. Metabolic diseases are also directly related to excessive sugar consumption.

                Speaking from real, personal experience (not some bandwagon-pushing agenda), I can say for certain that excessive sugar consumption can certainly lead to serious health consequences (physical and mental), and very real, immediate health benefits are gained by drastically cutting sugar intake. It is a real struggle to give up as it is addictive ( yes, addictive - like cigarettes or alcohol, you get cravings - real, physical cravings), but well worth the benefit if you stick it out.

                Commenter
                Alx
                Date and time
                August 14, 2012, 10:28PM

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