Sometimes we tell ourselves that we deserve that sweet treat, despite the fact that it will make us pile on the pounds. But did you know that it can also give you wrinkles and influence your brain to work?
What other health risks are associated with sugar and is there a safe replacement?
Can sugar shorten your life?
Research back in 2016 showed South Africans consuming large amounts of sugar – between 12 and 24 teaspoons per day.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than nine teaspoons a day for men, and only six teaspoons per day for women.
But, sugar is cheap, not always easy to resist, and it is EVERYWHERE.
Consider some typical breakfast foods. Many of us enjoy some sugar in our coffee. Most breakfast cereals contain large amounts of sugar, and so does your slice of toast. Also your yogurt.
Even fruit juice, which is considered a healthy drink by many people, is laced with sugar. If you are not careful, your first meal of the day could already push you over the limit. But why does it matter?
Before we look at the health risks associated with overindulgence in sugar, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between added sugars and natural sugars.
Added sugars are the ones that cause the most problems. This is literally the sugar that is added to a product, either by you or the manufacturer. Natural sugars occur naturally in fruit and dairy, and are a healthier option.
In both types of sugar moderation is the key to good health.
It’s no secret that sugar can have a significant effect on your waistline. But that’s not the only thing that can go wrong if you consume too much of the sweet stuff:
- While it will easily make you gain weight, sugar has no nutritional value. This is why it is often referred to as empty calories.
The body digests added sugars in a short time, so they are not a good source of lasting energy either.
Sources of natural sugar take longer to digest and are therefore a better option if you are trying to keep your energy up.
- A diet that is high in sugar leads can leave you obese and suffering from inflammation and high blood sugar and blood pressure levels – all risk factors for heart disease.
- When you enjoy a sweet snack your blood sugar levels rise fast and you experience a burst of energy.
But soon after your blood sugar levels will drop again and you experience a ‘sugar crash’, which does not feel great at all.
If you regularly indulge in sugary snacks, your mood could be affected to an even greater extent as this has been linked to an increased risk of developing depression.
- High calorie diets and obesity are risk factors for diabetes.
- Two words: rotten teeth.
- According to American dermatologist Dr Bobby Buka it is true that a diet high in sugar can give you acne because it causes your body’s insulin levels to spike.
“This extreme overdose of insulin increases the production of oils in the skin, which leads to your follicles and pores clogging up with sebum.
Alongside the inflammatory effects of a spike in insulin, this creates the ideal environment for P. Acnes bacteria to thrive, triggering a nasty breakout.
- Talking about inflammation caused by sugar, this can worsen joint pain. Sugar can also increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
- Overindulgence in sugar can harm your liver. When fructose is broken down by the liver it is turned into fat, which causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.
|Sugar Consumers are often advised to read the label on the product they are about to buy, to determine whether it contains harmful ingredients. This is good advice, but it can get tricky.|
Most labels aren’t going to simply say ‘sugar’. Look out for the following words, which are a few of many that indicate the presence of sugar in a product:
Corn syrupAgave nectarPalm sugarCane juiceSucroseDextroseMaltoseDextrinEthyl maltolMaltodextrinMalt syrupMolasses
Is sugar addictive?
What happens in your brain when you consume sugar certainly sounds a lot like addiction.
When you eat sugar, opioids and dopamine get released in your body. Simply put, these make you feel good, and therefore makes you want to consume sugar again.
When you keep eating sugary treats though, the brain adjusts and releases less dopamine. So now you need more sugar to achieve the same good feeling.
Cassie Bjork, founder of Healthy Simple Life said that sugar can be compared to any other drug:
“Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain and affects the reward centre, which leads to compulsive behaviour, despite negative consequences like weight gain, headaches and hormone imbalances.
Bjork adds, “Every time we eat sweets, we are reinforcing those neuropathways, causing the brain to become increasingly hardwired to crave sugar, building up a tolerance like any other drug.”
As if this isn’t disturbing enough, it’s not that easy to simply cut sugar from your diet as you will likely experience a few unpleasant symptoms while your body adjusts. These include:
- Lack of energy
- Stomach cramps
- Cravings for sweets
- Irritability or mild depression
|13 foods you didn’t realise contain large amounts of sugarFood manufacturers generally don’t show much concern for consumers’ health, they simply want you to buy their product. |
If their product makes you feel good, you will certainly want to buy it again. How does sugar make us feel? You get my drift. Be wary of these foods that may look innocent, but likely contains added sugar:
Pasta sauce, Baked beans, Salad dressing, YogurtBreakfast cereal, Energy drinks, Canned fruit, Dried fruit, Tomato sauce, White bread, Meat marinade, Protein bars, Alcoholic drinks.
Sources: https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/hidden-sugar-slideshow; https://www.insider.com/foods-high-in-sugar-2018-8#
Should you switch to a sugar replacement?
The good news, as we mentioned earlier, is that you don’t have to completely cut sugar out.
If you don’t overdo it, odds are you won’t experience severe health problems. This goes for both natural and added sugars.
Another option is of course to use a sugar replacement. There are quite a few options available on our shelves, such as stevia, erythritol and xylitol, to mention a few.
But are these safe? Can they help you lose weight and do they have any other benefits? For the purposes of this article we will focus specifically on xylitol.
What is xylitol?
Xylitol has a chemical structure that reminds of both sugar and alcohol, therefore it’s considered a sugar alcohol. Technically though, it’s not a sugar or an alcohol, but a type of low-digestible carbohydrate.
Small amounts of xylitol occur naturally in some fruits and vegetables, and it can also be produced in a lab.
The beauty of xylitol for those who want to lose weight is that it tastes sugary sweet, but is 40% lower in calories than regular sugar.
Replacing sugar with xylitol will cut your calorie intake, but if you are serious about losing weight, this is only one of the steps you will take.
Yes, you can occasionally have candy that is made with xylitol instead of sugar, but overindulgence will never be your friend.
There are quite a few products on the shelf that contain xylitol instead of sugar, from jam to cookies. These are a life-saver for those days when you simply can’t control your nagging sweet tooth.
If you enjoy fiddling around in the kitchen, xylitol can in some cases successfully replace sugar. It does depend on your recipe though – in some cases the end result might not be what you had in mind.
It’s best to make double sure that xylitol is suitable for the recipe you are making – ingredients are too expensive to risk a flop.
4 ways xylitol is good for you
Apart from fewer calories, there are even more ways your body can benefit from xylitol:
- Xylitol has a low glycemic index (GI). So unlike sugar, xylitol will not cause spikes in your blood glucose or insulin levels. No nasty sugar crashes.
- You might notice that some of your dental hygiene products contain xylitol.
This is because xylitol is non-fermentable, meaning that the bacteria that naturally occur in your mouth can’t convert it into the acid that causes tooth decay.
- Here’s an interesting one – the bacteria that causes tooth troubles can also accumulate behind the eardrum and cause middle ear infections. There is some evidence that xylitol can help prevent ear infections, but more research is needed to confirm this.
- According to a 2014 study xylitol has antioxidant properties. Antioxidants neutralise cancer-causing free radicals.
|If you have xylitol in your home, store it somewhere completely out of reach of your dogs, as it’s extremely toxic to them. |
The same goes for products that contain xylitol. Peanut butter, for example, is a popular dog treat that sometimes does contain xylitol.
If you suspect that your dog might have consumed xylitol, rather play it safe and get to the vet.
What’s the catch?
Too much of a good thing is usually not good at all. This is also the case with xylitol.
Fortunately xylitol is generally considered safe, but too much of it can cause an upset tummy in some people and you might experience symptoms like bloating, gas and diarrhoea.
A quick Google search for song titles that contain the word ‘sugar’ shows that there are many – far more than 50. My own playlist while writing this article contained a song called Sugar.
Something sweet is a welcome addition to life for most people. Mary Poppins knew this when she sang: “A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down.” But enjoy it responsibly – or just switch to xylitol.