Finding the sweet spot: The importance of moderation in sugar consumption

The availability of sugary foods has never been easier, and they are designed to keep us returning for more. Should we quit them if they are addictive?

The love of sugar is universal – it’s for a good reason, too! In the Paleolithic period, when food was scarce, you’d have had to chew through nearly a meter of chunky, fibrous sugar cane to get the same amount of energy you now get from a single soda.

However, besides the fact that most of us aren’t chasing giant creatures anymore, is there anything wrong with our fondness for sweets? Would we be better off quitting it altogether if it were addictive? 

You might want to brush your teeth before reading the truth. It’s important to understand the difference between “free” sugars, found in foods like sweets, cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks – and the sugar found in fruits, vegetables and milk. 

“The intrinsic sugars within the cellular structure of food, such as the sugar in whole fruit and vegetables, are delivered more slowly into the bloodstream,” says nutritionist Lily Soutter. “ [1] Milk sugars that come with protein and fat can also keep you full for longer. 

Adults are advised to limit “free” sugar intake to just 5% of total energy intake each day, which is about 30g or 7 teaspoons. Sugary foods are also high in calories, making them tempting to overeat and increasing our risk of health conditions like heart disease and diabetes type 2. According to some researchers, foods high in sugar, fat and salt can be “hyper-palatable”, which means we will eat more than we need even when we’re full [2].

In recent years, evidence has emerged that foods high in sugar and fat can rewire the brain to demand more. In a study published this year, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne served one group of participants a small pudding with a lot of fat and sugar every day for eight weeks, while a control group got a pudding with the same number of calories but less fat. [3].

How did it turn out? The first group’s brains responded more to high-fat, high-sugar desserts, exhibiting noticeable activation in the dopaminergic system, which is responsible for reward and motivation. The brain rewires itself to favor rewarding food, according to study lead, Professor Marc Tittgemeyer. Through these alterations in the brain, we will inadvertently always choose the foods that contain a lot of fat and sugar.

Do excessive sugar consumptions lead to extra calories and obesity even if they don’t contribute to weight gain? There is some evidence that sugar can overload the liver, causing chronic inflammation and heart disease [45]. And yes, it does cause tooth decay, caused by the acid that is produced when bacteria in your mouth break it down.

Ultimately, you should cut down on free sugars. A simple change to make is to stop drinking soft drinks, says Soutter. 

In addition, check food labels. Some foods have a traffic light label on the front of the pack, and while this provides information for total sugars rather than just free sugars, it can still be useful when evaluating products and choosing healthier options. Consider switching to fruit if your sweet tooth kicks in. Fresh fruit has beneficial fiber, vitamins and minerals and keeps us full, says Soutter. 

Wes Santos, a nutritionist and the founder of Instate Fitness, says high sugar cravings often stem from environmental stressors. Ask yourself these three questions instead of reaching for that sugary snack: ‘Do I feel stress?’ Am I thirsty? Or am I emotional?’ 

You can then decide what foods will fuel you best. Spoiler alert: if you don’t fear a sabre-tooth tiger attack, you probably don’t need a can of soda [6].


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