Consuming an excessive amount of sugar may contribute to weight gain – but whether it’s sugar itself that’s responsible, or the nutrient-poor, calorie-packed diets many sugar fans consume, is up for debate.
‘To say sugar is the sole cause of obesity is too simplistic,’ says HFG nutritionist Juliette Kellow. ‘Weight gain is the result of consuming more calories from food and drink than you use through activity. Sugar contains half as many calories per gram as fat (around 4g compared with 9g). But many of the foods that contain sugar also come with large amounts of fat – think doughnuts, chocolate and biscuits.’
The drink problem
There’s growing evidence, on the other hand, that consuming sugar-laden drinks is linked to weight gain. In the UK, soft drinks (which include fizzy drinks, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks and even innocent-sounding vitamin waters) are among the main sources of added sugar in our diet, providing 15% of non-milk extrinsic sugars; alcoholic drinks provide another 11%, and fruit juice an extra 8%. Overall, this means drinks account for more than a third of the sugar in our diet. The problem, says the British Dietetic Association (BDA), is that there’s some evidence sugary drinks make it harder for us to control our overall calorie intake and a regular consumption may contribute to obesity in children.
Is sugar linked to diabetes?
When the carbohydrates in food are digested they’re broken down into their simplest form – glucose – resulting in a rise in blood sugar or blood glucose. In response to this, the body releases insulin, which transports sugar to cells to provide energy. The simpler the sugar, the easier it is to break down.
This means sugar itself can quickly cause blood sugar levels to rise, prompting a surge in insulin. Theories suggest that if your diet is constantly high in simple sugars, your body can lose sensitivity to this process and so become insulin resistant, which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes, a condition that currently affects 2.9 million people in the UK.
Again, sugary drinks have been highlighted. One study showed women who had one or more sugary drinks a day (having previously consumed one or less a week) almost doubled their risk of type 2 diabetes.
Most health experts, however, dismiss the idea that sugar itself causes insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes. Diabetes UK agrees, saying the condition isn’t caused by eating sweets and sugar but that eating a lot of sugary and fatty foods can lead to being overweight, which is one of the main risk factors. The BDA agrees, saying that a link with sugar alone can’t be made.
The bottom line
Sugar isn’t the health horror some believe it to be, if we enjoy it occasionally and in small amounts. However, the issue we have today is that high-calorie sugary foods are so readily available it can be hard to keep the balance right.
Download and print our hidden sugars guide to help you cut down.
‘The best solution is to follow the general guidelines for healthy eating – which means we’ll naturally limit our added sugar intake as we fill up on nutrient-rich foods,’ says HFG nutritionist Juliette Kellow. ‘Eating plenty of vegetables, favouring wholegrain cereals, including lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and pulses, choosing low-fat milk and dairy products, and drinking water and unsweetened water-based drinks as your main fluids means you’ll have few added sugars in your diet.’
*Weight-loss results will vary and are down to your individual circumstances and the amount of weight you have to lose.