By Amy Chan
Glistening chocolate éclairs line one side of the café, their gentle puff pastry oozing a fluffy center. On the other side lie rows of lavish lamington towers, raspberry pink alternating with dark chocolate, delightfully sprinkled with flakes of coconut. Sweetness fills the air, invading each corner of the shop, where innocent café-goers sit and enjoy their treats. Spoilt with choice, I find myself tempted by all these options. Yet my mind remembers just a few words. Sugar. Sweet. Calories. Fat. Bad.
In just a few steps, my mind has reshaped sugar into a bad word. But is it really?
The constant struggle between sugar versus sugar-free is real – a battle that so many of us face each day. In America alone, average consumption equals to nearly 100 pounds of sugar each year. That’s nearly 30 teaspoons a day, making America one of most sugar-loving countries in the world. It would be easy to slip into blaming sugar on fizzy drinks and desserts – but what’s most concerning is that most of our sugar consumption comes from nonchalant-looking items – foods that our minds wouldn’t normally associate with sugar.Things like chicken dishes and pizza. Clearly, sugar is a problem – and a difficult one to solve at that.
In fact, we are so obsessed with the concept of sugar and sugar-related problems, that Australian Damon Gameau felt compelled to conduct an experiment and documentary around it.That Sugar Film, released earlier this year, follows Gameau’s experience over 60 days as he consumes 40 teaspoons of sugar each day and documents the consequences of this – such as increased middle obesity, mood swings, fatty liver and early signs of heart problems. The catch? He did this whilst only eating foods commonly perceived as ‘healthy’ – the likes of cereal, smoothies, low-fat yoghurt. The take-home message? Not only is sugar hidden everywhere, even in foods you’d least suspect – but it is addictive. He likens it to a drug addiction. The more you eat, the more you want. Some even think sugar was introduced to us as part of a conspiracy theory fuelled by the beverages association to get us hooked on sugar (and to think all this time I’d been thinking fat was the main evil we should be avoiding?). It seems that sugar ‘cravings’ are true cravings after all …
So if sugar is so bad for us, then surely the best thing to do is limit it right? Turns out, like most things in life, the story is not that simple. As with any good controversy, there is a flipside to the coin. Think about this scenario for a second. Suppose sugar is the essence of all evil. What would happen then if we limited our sugar intake or went ‘sugar-free’? How about substituted sugars such as artificial sugars, diet drinks versus ‘actual’ sugar? Would everything change… for the better?
Maybe not. A group of American scientists from the 1980s followed over 3000 adults for seven to eight years and observed what happened to people’s weights over time in those who drank diet versus sugar-sweetened drinks. Although both groups gained weight, people drinking diet drinks had more weight gain, which increased with increasing diet drink consumption. A second study in over 78000 women found similar results, as have other studies. More recently however, studies have shown that diet soda intake did not lead to fatty liver disease or abdominal obesity (which is the riskiest type of obesity), whereas sugar-sweetened drinks did.
So what does this all mean? Finding answers to whether diet drinks actually cause weight gain is really difficult – as those who switch to diet drinks might have been the ones who were more likely to gain weight in the first place. What these studies do tell us is that switching to diet drinks or artificial sugars doesn’t necessarily negate weight gain, nor the risks from sugar; in some cases it may even make things worse, though there is evidence also for the opposite effect.
Scientists think that artificial sugars may make things worse as the sweet taste is still perceived by our tongues, yet our bodies don’t get the calorie boost from it. What happens then is that our taste buds are sensing the sugar and waiting for the “sugar-rush” to kick in to satisfy our brain’s reward pathways – but nothing happens as there are no calories. This constant “taste activation” without “brain satisfaction” leads to more cravings – which may ultimately lead to even more over-eating. Continued exposure to sweetness also helps fuel our sugar ‘dependence’ as our taste buds are ‘trained’ into preferring sweeter flavors.Think about the time you had a binge on a particular food. Did you notice that the more you eat of a particular type of flavor, whether it is a bunch of sweet cookies or packets of chips, the more you want it? Yet once you stop having that particular flavor – the less you crave of it? Scientists call it ‘flavor preference training’ – where repeated exposure to a particular flavor increases your desires for that flavor.
The jury is still out on these theories.Yet regardless of what effect diet sodas might be having on weight, what we do know is that those who don’t drink either sugared or diet drinks, are probably better off; and in those that do choose to drink diet drinks, weight loss only happens if calories are also restricted from other food sources. So, perhaps being sugar-free is the way to go, but you need to make sure you are cutting out both real and artificial sugar – a slow “unsweetening” of our diets.
But just when you think the story ends, another crops up. Just to complicate things, a recent study from Tel Aviv University led by Professor Daniela Jakubowicz, found that having dessert for breakfast actually helped weight loss. The study done in 193 non-diabetic, obese adults found that the group who ate a balanced 600 calorie breakfast including a chocolate cake for dessert lost an average of 40 pounds more per person than the group who ate the lower 300-calorie breakfast as part of a low-carb diet plan. Not only did the low-carb group report feeling less satisfied, they also had more intense cravings for sugars and carbohydrates. Researchers postulate that trying to avoid sweet foods completely can cause a psychological addiction to the food in the long-term. In contrast, eating sugary foods first thing in the morning can help curb any cravings that crop up later in the day, with the added benefit of ‘kick-starting’ the body’s functioning in the morning. Ultimately this spurs on the body’s metabolism, eventually leading to weight loss.
But…back to our original question – should you be sugar-free? Given all the controversy around this – I don’t think we can safely say either way. Whilst we leave the scientists to find out more from their research – there are two tips that we can safely say will do you good:
About the Author
Amy Chan is currently finishing her doctoral degree at The University of Auckland with the School of Pharmacy and Department of Pediatrics. Her study was a clinical trial looking at how medication taking can be improved in children with asthma using a reminder inhaler. She also works as a clinical pharmacist at Auckland City Hospital. Her journey through her PhD and work with patients has opened her eyes to the exciting world of science and research, through which the work of some can help change the lives of many. She believes that "we are only people through people" and that with science and new discoveries, people are brought closer to each other as we gain knowledge and skills. In her spare time, Amy enjoys writing, crafting, exploring new places and is a keen dance performer.
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