As part of Sugar Free February I’m going sugar free (cutting out all refined sugar and added sweeteners e.g. maple syrup or stevia) to raise money to donate for meals for the homeless. I wanted to get a nutritionists perspective on if and why reducing sugar intake is a good option and if I was justified in removing unrefined sugars and most of the fruit from my diet.
Jenna Hope (ANutr), MSc, BSc (Hons) a registered nutritionist from Jenna Hope Nutrition wrote this guest post to clarify some commonly asked questions about sugar and going ‘sugar free’.
“Why go Sugar-Free?
Sugar has gradually built a terrible reputation. Research has linked sugar to a large number of diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and obesity to name a few. This research is not ground-breaking and it’s relatively widely accepted that sugar plays a role in contributing to these diseases.
Since the rise of the ‘sugar-free’ movement is increasing at a drastic rate it is important that we understand exactly what this means, which sugars we should avoid or reduce in our diet and which ones we require in small amounts.
The ‘sugar- free’ industry & artificial sweeteners
The ‘sugar-free’ industry has radically taken off in the last couple of years. The ‘sugar-free’ product market is saturated and people are consuming more and more of these free-from foods on a regular basis. However, many of these ‘sugar-free’ foods are not sugar free at all.
In many cases ‘sugar-free’ simply means containing artificial sweeteners. Research has linked artificial sweeteners to the change in gut microbiota, increased cancer risk and metabolic disturbances. Consequently I recommend steering clear of artificial sweeteners where possible.
What about healthier less refined sugars?
Un-refined forms of sugar such as coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey and dates are also popular and often promoted as healthy. Yes these sugar ingredients are natural but nonetheless they’re still sugar.
Coconut sugar, maple syrup and honey may have a marginally lower glycemic index than refined white sugar, however, they still significantly spike blood sugar levels, promote insulin production (which in excess promotes fat storage) and leave us craving more sweet foods. Some people argue that these sugars can be beneficial as they contain micronutrients unlike refined sugar. However, the amount of micronutrients present in these sugars do not consider them worthy of being ‘healthy’.
Dates and dried fruit are a better alternative to these syrupy sugars as they contain fibre which slows the blood sugar spike and so they may be a better option but should not be consumed in excess. When consuming dried fruits or foods higher in natural sugars I recommend eating them with nuts, nut butter or another source of protein/ fats as these also help slow down the release of sugars into the bloodstream.
What about fresh fruit?
Fresh fruit seems to be confusing for many people who are trying to reduce their sugar intake, fruit contains a higher amount of soluble fibre which also slows the release of sugar into the blood. Fruit also provides a whole host of micronutrients which are required as part of a balanced diet. I recommend eating 2 portions of fresh fruit a day. If you are trying to reduce your sugar intake opt for lower sugar fruits such as berries. Eating fruit is essential for a balanced diet and is not something you should avoid.
What are some good sugar-free snacks?
If you are trying to reduce your sugar intake you may find yourself craving sugar, I highly recommend snacking on foods such as coconut, nut butter or hummus and vegetables to control these cravings and stabilise blood sugar levels.
Going Sugar Free – in conclusion
Evidently we should be cautious that the ‘sugar-free’ hype may be subject to another fad (when refined sugars are replaced with ‘health’ unrefined sugar alternatives). All these sources of sugar impact your blood glucose levels and consequent insulin release.
Having said this a healthy lifestyle is all about balance, I always encourage my clients listen to their body and learn to understand its needs. I am by no mean suggesting that you never eat these foods, I’m simply recommending that you eat them in moderation and as part of a healthy balanced diet. It is easy to get caught up in the sugar-free FAD but when you take a step back, have a look and consider is it really all it appears to be?”
Here are some important things I think Jenna picked up on and my thoughts about them.
TAKE AWAY MESSAGES
- Reducing your sugar intake can have health benefits.
- Beware when reading labels that state ‘sugar free’ or ‘no added sugar’ – they can still contain artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes such as maple syrup
- Swapping refined sugar for a more natural alternative such as dates will provide you with more micronutrients, but remember – they’re still sugar, so you shouldn’t go overboard eating them.
- Fruit has lots of health benefits and is a great snack if you’re craving something sweet. Jenna recommends eating 2 portions per day. However, don’t be scared to go over – if it’s a choice between another piece of fruit or a more processed or sugary snack then I would pick the fruit.
- Limiting your sugar intake is important but don’t become obsessed by it. If you have medical advice to control them amount of sugar you eat then follow this advice. But for most of us it is a balance between being healthy and still being able to enjoy a treat .
What do you think about going ‘sugar-free’ and the points that Jenna has raised?
Lustig, R. H., Schmidt, L. A., & Brindis, C. D. (2012). Public health: The toxic truth about sugar. Nature, 482(7383), 27-29.
Suez, J., Korem, T., Zeevi, D., Zilberman-Schapira, G., Thaiss, C. A., Maza, O., … & Kuperman, Y. (2014). Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature, 514(7521), 181-186.