Sugar has got a bad rap, and for good reason. It's no secret that too much of it leads to weight gain but the effect that sugar has on our bodies goes far beyond our waistlines. Many of us are digging our own graves one sweet spoonful at a time.
Yet despite numerous warnings by health authorities, most of us are still in denial about how damaging sugar can be to our health. It's too easy to believe that it's just scaremongering. Could sugar really be that bad for us? Well, in a word, yes. Especially when the majority of the country is consuming four times the recommended daily limit.
The current guidelines recommend that we limit our daily sugar intake to 7% or less of our daily calorie intake - that's about six teaspoons (100 calories) for women and nine teaspoons (150 calories) for men. It sounds like a generous allowance, but just one can of soft drink contains approximately nine teaspoons of sugar. An average bowl of cereal, small tub of fruit yogurt or tin of tomato soup contain around four teaspoons of sugar each.
If you really knew what all that sugar was doing to your body, perhaps you'd think twice about adding that extra spoonful of sweetness to your morning coffee. Here's a guide to what you need to know about sugar.
It is addictive
Can't resist your cravings for the sweet stuff? Well, you're certainly not alone and the reason why is simple. Humans are biologically programmed to like sweets. When we eat something sugary, it stimulates the release of dopamine in our brain, which makes us feel pleasure. The brain recognises and likes this feeling and begins to crave more.
In fact, it may frighten you to learn that heroin, morphine and sugar all stimulate the same receptors in our brain.
The high of a sugar rush is temporary though and is followed swiftly by a 'sugar crash', which leaves us feeling tired and craving yet more of it. And, the more sugar you consume, the higher your tolerance becomes, so, you need more to get the same effect - it's a vicious cycle.
Excess amounts of it promote heart risks
If you think that eating fat is the only dietary way to raise your cholesterol levels, think again. When you take in too much sugar, you store the excess amount in your liver in the form of triglycerides, a type of fat that can cling to artery walls as it travels through the bloodstream.
High triglyceride levels contribute to atherosclerosis, the formation of plaque in blood vessels. Refined sugar also appears to lower high-density lipoprotein, which is our 'good cholesterol'. Both high cholesterol levels and atherosclerosis increase your risk of developing heart disease.
It drives chronic disease
The amount of sugar you consume directly affects your risk of developing nearly all chronic diseases. This may sound dramatic, but the reasons for this are simple. In a nutshell, excess sugar leads to weight gain. Being overweight or obese massively increases your chances of developing heart disease, certain forms of cancer and, of course, type 2 diabetes.
When you eat too much sugar or refined carbohydrates (which rapidly break down into sugar), your insulin levels spike. When this consistently happens, your cells may become resistant to insulin. So you pump out more and more insulin, become even more resistant to its effects, and end up in the vicious cycle of 'insulin resistance' which is the precursor to type 2 diabetes.
Insulin resistance can also take you down the slippery road towards high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, brain ageing, dementia and more.
It increases inflammation
If you're naturally slim, you may think you're off the hook. However, you don't have to be overweight to be affected by diet-related disease.
Every time you spike your blood sugar, it creates inflammation in the body and inflammation is at the root of pretty much all chronic health conditions, from arthritis and eczema to Alzheimer's and stroke.
It feeds stress
A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can also impact our mood and how we respond to stress. If you lose blood sugar control, you can end up being trapped in a vicious cycle of sugar highs and sugar lows which can leave you feeling irritable, moody and constantly craving sugar.
If we regularly consume foods that raise our blood sugar levels too quickly, it throws our whole hormonal system out of balance which can lead to low mood and feelings of anxiety.
It suppresses immunity
If you're wondering why you can't seem to shake that annoying cough or cold, sugar may be the culprit again. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are renowned for greatly reducing our immunity.
Studies have shown that even an intake of around 35 grams of sugars (about the amount you would find in a can of fizzy drink) is enough to cause a 50pc reduction in the ability of white blood cells to destroy bacteria.
The immune-suppressing effect of sugar starts less than 30 minutes after ingestion and may last for up to five hours. So, if you're consuming sugary foods regularly throughout the day, your immune system may be consistently compromised.
Kicking sugar to the curb
The good news is that taking back control over your relationship with sugar doesn't have to be a course of misery and doesn't necessarily mean eradicating it from your diet altogether. Most people can have a moderate and balanced relationship with sugar by having a little more awareness and by following a low GI style of eating which is low in sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Fortunately, once you have decreased your threshold, something that tasted beautifully sweet just a few weeks ago, will begin to taste sickeningly sweet. This will naturally decrease your cravings and put sugar back where it belongs - as an occasional treat and not a diet staple.
ELSA JONES IS A NUTRITIONIST