True or False? We clear up four myths about sugar

Posted on 17 October 2013

Do some people need it more? And are some sugars better for you than others? Anel Kirsten, a dietician at Mediclinic Vergelegen, clarifies a few misconceptions.

Words Deidre Donnelly

‘Sugar is good for me.’
The ancient Greeks and Romans used it as medicine, while physicians in the Middle Ages used it to mask the taste of treatment for digestive troubles.

PARTLY TRUE ‘Sugar [or glucose] provides precious fuel for our bodies,’ says Anel Kirsten. But all food groups, apart from fat and protein, are converted into glucose, so it’s a question of balance. A diet high in refined sugars, like sweets and soft drinks, could damage your arteries and in the long term could compromise your pancreas’ ability to make insulin, which is vital for cells to convert glucose into fuel. Although we need sugar, there are better sources: carbohydrates, vegetables, dairy and fruit.

If I crave something sweet, it means my body needs sugar.’
Of the five basic tastes, sweetness is the first we encounter as infants in breastmilk and milk formula. This, say scientists, is why we’re instinctually drawn to treats.

FALSE ‘This is quite a common misconception. In most cases, you’ve been eating too much sugar, which has made your body over-produce insulin, and that drives cravings,’ explains Anel. If you crave sugar, try Bulgarian yoghurt sweetened with puréed fruit or take a chromium supplement to help regulate blood-sugar and insulin levels.

‘Some people need more sugar than others.’
It seems so unfair: some of us gain weight after indulging in the sweet stuff; others can munch away without a difference to their waistlines. Then there are those who suffer from low blood sugar. Surely they need more?

PARTLY TRUE Active people needmore sugar (in the form of carbs), says Anel. ‘Just like a car – the bigger the engine, the more fuel it needs. But I’d only recommend pure sugar [glucose] to athletes participating in an endurance event.’ As for low blood sugar, it’s likely from having too much refined sugar in the first place – sugar spikes cause your blood sugar to drop. If you experience this, don’t overcompensate: ‘Eat two jelly babies rather than a handful, and follow with a glass of milk or a slice of low-GI bread.’

‘There are good sugars and bad sugars.’
When obesity and diabetes rose along with sugar consumption in the 20th century, scientists wondered, ‘If it tastes so good, is it bad?’ In 1957, Dr William Coad Martin classified refined sugar as a poison, and it’s been vilified since. Recently, there have been calls to regulate sugar.

TRUE Thanks to the development of the glycaemic index (GI) in the ’80s, we know that when it comes to their effect on blood sugar, not all foods are created equal. ‘The bad types are actual food that contains sugar, like sweets,’ says Anel. ‘They’re empty kilojoules – energy without nutrients.’ Whether it’s brown sugar or honey, the effect is the same: high GI causes a rapid energy release into the bloodstream, which can’t be sustained. Opt for low-GI ‘good’ sugars, like certain fruit, yoghurt and complex carbohydrates. These release energy slowly, leaving you satisfied for longer.

When glucose gets toxic
Diabetes occurs when there’s a problem with insulin: a person is either born unable to produce it (Type 1) or it’s diagnosed later in life, either when the pancreas struggles to make insulin or the insulin can’t make glucose available as fuel for cells (Type 2). Too much sugar in the blood can cause complications, like poor circulation, nerve damage, heart attacks or strokes. Family history, a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet can cause Type 2 diabetes, but working with your dietician to keep your sugar level close to normal can help prevent these complications, says Anel.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

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