Not so long ago, fat was the dietary villain and now the sugar free diet has appeared on the health and wellness scene.
Sugar free diets encourage people to avoid table sugar (sucrose), carbohydrate rich foods such as:
– Starchy vegetables (potato, bread fruit etc.)
– or, unrefined grains such as pulses, brown rice, honey, sweets
– and fruits such as bananas and mangoes.
Some sugar free diets even recommend eliminating or restricting dairy due to the lactose (natural sugar content).
The no sugar advocates rightly note that today’s excessive intake of refined sugar can lead to many chronic diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers among others. For this reason, it is recommended that no more than 10% of your daily fuel come from free sugars. For the average adult, this is about 50g or only slightly more than the amount of sugar in a can of regular soft drink or soda.
Sugar does indeed offer minimal nutritional benefits such as satiety, vitamins, or minerals and should be consumed sparingly but it is by no means evil and can be worked into a flexible approach to nutrition. Evidence shows that the health risks from sugars, such as tooth decay and unhealthy weight gain, are related to consuming too many free sugars in the diet, not from eating sugars that are naturally present in fruits or milk.
Foods that are sources of free sugars, such as juices, soft drinks, biscuits and lollies, are often high in calories and have little other nutritional value. It is often easy to consume more of them compared with fresh fruit and they also may be replacing other nutritious foods in the diet.
Unlike many foods that are high in free sugars, fruits are packaged with lots of nutrients that help provide us with a balanced diet for good health. For starters, fruit is an excellent source of fibre. An average banana will provide 20-25% (6g) of your recommended daily fibre intake. Getting enough fibre in the diet is important for protecting against bowel cancer. There is clear room for improvement in our fibre intake as many consume only about half of the recommended amount each day.
Unfortunately, fruit juice would not be considered as an alternative as you would have to eat six whole oranges to get the same amount of sugar you consume in the juice. And because the fruit is in juice form, and no chewing involved, it becomes an addition to the calories you are eating from food, which may lead to weight gain over time.
The fibre in fruit which is often absent in many foods and drinks with free sugars, may also help to fill you up, which means you eat less overall at meal times. Fruit is also a good source of other nutrients such as potassium, which can help lower blood pressure, and flavonoids, which may reduce your risk of heart disease.
There is evidence that eating whole fruits (alone and in combination with vegetables) reduces your chances of dying from cancer, obesity and heart disease. Despite this, a limited number of Mauritians eat at least one piece of fruit per day.
Similarly, unprocessed grains such as brown rice, barley and pulses are very efficient at providing fuel—glucose, needed by every cell. Along with being highly nutritious due to the vitamin and mineral content such as magnesium, B-complex, it is the preferred energy source for our brain, central nervous system, and red blood cells. Moreover, wholegrains are mostly rich in resistant starch which helps to promote a good intestinal flora and mental health.
The sugar-free diet is restrictive with lists of “allowed” foods and “not allowed” foods. This inadvertently promotes a diet mentality and causes followers to worry about accidentally eating something that’s not allowed and evidence suggests that people who worry about food are more likely to diet.
This may be because they are worried specifically about their weight, or about the impact certain nutrients have on their health.
Research shows dieting is not effective over the long term and can lead to greater weight gain over time. The brain interprets dieting and restriction as a famine, which causes the storage of fat for future shortages. Dieting is stressful and in response to this, our body releases stress hormones such as cortisol, which may cause the body to store fat, particularly in the abdominal area.
Worrying about food can lead to stress, anxiety and depression, and is one of the defining features of the condition known as orthorexia. Orthorexia is the overwhelming preoccupation with eating healthily. People with orthorexia spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about food and eliminating foods that are deemed impure or unhealthy. Some experts suggest this behaviour is a precursor to, or a form of, an eating disorder. It’s much easier to demonize sugar for all of our health issues, and then conveniently come out with a sugar free detox book or product as the holy saviour to all of our sugar and health issues.
Anything in too high of a dose is toxic. Water, for example, is essential for life but also toxic in high enough levels causing hyponatremia and hypokalaemia (low sodium & potassium) and will straight up kill you if you over consume. Similarly the best approach to nutrition is not about demolishing individual components of the diet such as carbohydrates, sugar and fat but instead eat a rainbow of unrefined foods along and practising some physical activities.