Sugar has a bad reputation for causing all sorts of health problems such as diabetes and playing a major role in the rising obesity epidemic worldwide.
The truth is that no one food is to blame for our global health crisis. It's a harsh and extreme statement to make and shifts the focus away from the root cause.
The bottom line is that the over-consumption of calorie-dense, highly-palatable foods is one of the main driving forces behind the obesity epidemic.
Sugar is not solely to blame; it is the excess intake of calories, often in the absence of hunger, be it in whatever form, that makes us fat.
The Sugar-Coated Truth
Sugar is a blanket term and does not just mean the white table sugar we sprinkle in our tea. It encompasses most simple forms of carbohydrates that also taste sweet, including natural sources from fruits, vegetables and dairy.
All sugars, regardless of whether they came from a can of Coke or an apple, are broken down into simple sugars before they are absorbed by the body and used for energy.
What distinguishes one type of sugary food from the other is the rate at which it is broken down and absorbed in the body, as well as the nutrient content of the food.
The Glycaemic Index (GI) is a term used to describe the rate at which the carbohydrate food is broken down and absorbed. A high GI food will have a high absorption rate and a low GI food will have a low GI rate. Low GI foods, when eaten on their own, will have a lower effect on our blood sugar levels.
The GI of a food is often and incorrectly used to describe the "healthiness" of a food and often used as a means to manage weight. However, the glycaemic load of a food can completely change depending on what you eat with it.
The GI is only a useful term if the food is eaten on its own in the absence of other foods, such as meat or eggs. You can combine a high GI food with fats and proteins to decrease the overall impact it will have on your blood sugar levels, and in effect lower its glycaemic load.
Sugar is Sugar is Sugar
It is no surprise or coincidence that the intake of added refined sugars such as table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup has increased drastically in the last hundred years or so - along with the rise in obesity.
Yes, an excess intake of sugar is bad for you and will eventually lead to health problems if you continue to consume it in large quantities. Some of the dangers of a chronic high-sugar diet include gaining excess body fat and poor carbohydrate tolerance as well as premature ageing, cancer, vascular disease, kidney disease, joint pain and arthritis.
Eating a diet high in any type of sugar should be avoided. But the occasional treat from time to time in conjunction with a healthy-balanced diet will do no harm.
There are a lot of scare tactics and much fearmongering surrounding sugar these days - we often hear such things as "sugar is the devil" and "sugar is the root of all evil".
Statements like these are far from true, but have scared people into looking for alternatives to sugar such as agave syrup, honey or fruit-sweetened syrups.
At the end of the day sugar is sugar is sugar. Regardless of whether it is table sugar, honey, agave syrup or nectar from the gods, the problem does not lie with the type of sugar but rather with the quantity that we consume.
A drizzle of honey over your oats, a swirl of agave syrup through your yogurt or a sprinkle of table sugar in your tea is not going to be a problem when consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet. However, it will quickly escalate into a serious health problem if excessively drizzled, swirled and sprinkled by the tablespoon daily.
Instead of trying to source "healthy" sugar alternatives, just moderate your use of it. The type of sweetener you choose to use should be determined by your personal taste and preference and not just because you perceive it as being "healthy".
Maybe try swapping nutrient-less sources of sugar for more nutrient-dense sources. Naturally occurring sugars in their native form from fruits and vegetables such as apples, banana, figs, carrots and even sweet potatoes are a better source of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre than their nutrient-less counterparts such as table sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
The take home message is - when deciding what sweetener to use, quantity is by far the most important factor that will influence our health and our body composition.
Speaking of sugar alternatives, try this homemade alternative to Nutella, which is preservative-free, easy to make and sweetened with banana. To make, just mush together with a fork equal parts of your favourite nut butter, cocoa powder and banana. Done!
You can also add a dash of vanilla for extra flavour. Spread on whatever and enjoy.
Karen Coghlan is a nutrition coach and personal trainer and runs affordable monthly online group programs. Visit her website www.thenutcoach.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.