Is Sugar Bad For You?
Get the facts on 8 common questions about sugar from a Registered Dietitian
Read on to explore the science of sugar, how much is OK to eat and address the common question “Is Sugar Bad For You?”
In our nutrition counselling practice, our Dietitian team often gets asked “is sugar bad for you?”, and variations of this question. For example, “how much sugar is ok to eat?”, and “what are your thoughts on sugar substitutes?”. Concerned parents, those with weight concerns, and individuals with diabetes are seeking clarity about the many aspects of sugar. Here are a few facts to help you sort out the confusion:
1. What is the difference between added sugar and natural sugar?
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Our brain and central nervous system run exclusively on carbohydrate for energy, and our muscles use carbohydrates for fuel. To our body, honey, brown sugar, white sugar, agave, maple syrup, coconut sugar, fruit, vegetables, milk, or yogurt are all the same, in terms of sugar. These foods all contain simple sugars made up of single and double units of sugar. The difference between them all is nutritional density, or the amount of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre they contain. There are also differences in what is known as the glycemic index or how fast the sugar enters the bloodstream.
Health guidelines are targeting a reduction of added sugar, which include glucose, fructose, sucrose (table sugar) as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. Added sugar is found in foods such as pop, cake, cookies, chocolate bars, frozen desserts, granola bars, and more. Health guidelines are not suggesting you reduce natural sugar found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and yogurt.
2. Why is eating too much sugar a problem?
Similar to consuming too much of anything, too much added sugar can increase the total calories of your diet and can increase the risk of obesity. Excess added sugar consumption is also a large concern for tooth decay in adults and children. Taking in too much added sugar can also take the place for other nutrient dense foods that are rich in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fibre that we need for good health. There is also growing research to suggest that high added sugar consumption can increase triglycerides (a blood fat similar to cholesterol that can increase the risk of heart disease).
You certainly don’t need to reduce healthy natural sugars found in vegetables, fruits, milk, and yogurt. The key message here is EXCESS added sugar is harmful. You don’t need to eliminate sugary foods altogether. There are no bad foods, only bad overall diets.
3. Is there a recommended daily sugar intake?
According to the Dietary Reference Intakes endorsed by Health Canada a Daily Value of 20% of your total calories is the amount of total sugars that is consistent with a healthy eating pattern where sugars come mostly from fruit, vegetables and plain milk.
- This level is not a recommendation to strive towards but can be used to compare the sugars content of different foods and understand the relative amount of sugars in the context of your day.
- It is also an amount that meets The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations to ensure free sugars (added sugar plus concentrated fruit juice) make up less than 10% of your total calories per day.
For a 2,000 calorie diet, 20% of your total calories is 100 grams of total sugars. If you eat more or less than 2,000 calories per day this means there is more or less room for total sugars in your day.
- 20% of 1,500 Calories = 75 g total sugars
- 20% of 2,000 Calories = 100 g total sugars
- 20% of 2,500 Calories = 125 g total sugars
- 20% of 3,000 Calories = 150 g total sugars
- 20% of 3,500 Calories = 175 g total sugars
4. How do I read a food label when it comes to sugar?
The Nutrition Facts Label displays a % Daily Value for total sugars based on 100 grams (20% of a 2,000 calorie diet). (Using menu modelling, Health Canada determined that when the Daily Value equals 100 grams total sugars, foods with greater than 15% Daily Value include many products that are high in added sugars).
Reading food labels to determine how much added sugar is in a food is actually currently quite difficult. This is because total sugar is currently listed on a food label and includes a combination of added sugar as well as those that are naturally occurring in foods such as fruit, vegetables, and dairy foods. It can be confusing on a label to see foods such as a carton of plain milk or package of baby carrots displaying grams of total sugar. These foods obviously do not have sugar added to them, but contain natural carbohydrates (milk contains lactose and carrots contain fructose and glucose).
You can take a look at the ingredient list on a food label to investigate if sugar has been added to your food. A word ending in “ose” usually has sugar. These items on a label mean sugar has been added to your food:
- Sucrose, galactose, dextrose, lactose
- Maltose or malt sugar
- Glucose, fructose or glucose-fructose
- Corn syrup, syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
- Agave nectar/syrup
- Rice malt, barley malt or brown rice syrup
- Demerara sugar, turbinado sugar or organic raw sugar
- Evaporated cane juice or cane juice extract/crystals
- Brown sugar, beet sugar or coconut sugar
- Honey, molasses or maple syrup
- Invert sugar or liquid sugar
5. Does sugar cause hyperactivity in children?
No. Feeding sugar to kids does not cause hyperactivity. Research has also not supported a link between eating sugar and the behavior of kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). What research has shown is that when kids have excess energy, it may be more linked to the experience itself. For example, the fun activities at recess time or at a birthday party leads to excitability (not necessarily the sweets fed at that time).
I will, however, say that balanced meals and good nutrition does make a huge difference in how kids feel and their overall energy levels throughout a day. If your child does not eat enough healthy food, is undernourished, or fails to consume meals with a good balance of both carbohydrate and protein to stabilize blood sugar, expect their mood and ability to concentrate to be negatively influenced.
6. Can I eat sugar if I have diabetes?
Yes. Small amounts of regular sugar and dessert can be included, but you do need to be savvy about how much at a time and also what else you are eating with them. Limit obviously sugary foods such as pop and candy and once you have your blood sugars managed well through the help of an experienced Diabetes Dietitian, they can help you understand how to incorporate desserts.
If you are going to have a sweet dessert, look for recipes that use less sugar and icings in general. Also, eat your dessert separate from a meal so you can spread out how much carbohydrates you are having at one time. Lastly, head out for a walk or any type of physical activity, since this is one of the most effective ways to lower your blood sugars.
Also, keep in mind that diabetes is about managing carbohydrate intake, not simply about avoiding sugar. Spreading your food out throughout the day is critical so your body can handle a reasonable amount of carbohydrate at one time. Check out this article by our Diabetes Dietitian about other things that increase blood sugar outside of food.
7. Should I avoid sugar altogether?
No one food or nutrient contributes to obesity, disease and health issues. There are no bad foods, just bad overall diets. Sugar is not a villain and you don’t need to have a sugar-free diet. If you have been consuming an excessive amount of pop, sugary beverages, candy, desserts and other sugary foods, of course you could benefit from reducing these. You don’t need to eliminate them, but be clear on what you really love and save room for these favorites.
You won’t find me eating candy and pop since they are not my favorites, but I do love chocolate and homemade baked goods such as muffins and cookies that contain regular white or brown sugar. I also enjoy maple syrup on pancakes and a sprinkle of brown sugar on oatmeal. You can eat anything, just not everything – the key is about being intentional about your choices.
8. Are sugar substitutes safe?
You may be wondering if you should eat sugar-free foods or switch to diet pop and alternative sweeteners instead.
At this time, Health Canada has approved alternative sweeteners as safe when consumed within the Acceptable Dietary Intake (ADI). For a good consumer friendly overview highlighting the ADI’s check out this table by Diabetes Canada: SAFETY OF SUGAR SWEETENERS.
At the end of the day, the thing to remember is neither a diet based on a high level of sugar, or a high level of alternative sweeteners, is ideal. I have noticed that clients of ours may find it hard to acquire a taste for more whole natural foods we want them to eat more of when they are constantly sipping artificially sweetened flavored waters and diet pop.
My personal vote? As a foodie, I personally don’t enjoy the taste of alternative sweeteners and instead prefer to have a bit of the real thing (ie/ sugar). Make choices that reflect eating fully (healthfully AND soulfully). What do you really love? Keep some of these and make choices around that. For me, that means homemade baked cookies and muffins made with regular sugar and, of course, saving room for chocolate (after all, I am the chocoholic dietitian!).
Extra Question: Can You be Addicted to Sugar?
If you have ever wondered if you can be addicted to sugar, read this article by Registered Dietitian Courtney Gault here: The Sweet Truth About Sugar Addiction
If you have more questions related to this topic, our team of Registered Dietitians is happy to answer them!
Need more support with healthy eating and nutrition?
If you are struggling with how to manage cravings for sweet and savory foods, emotional eating, or how to make healthy eating easier, don’t struggle alone. See one of our qualified Registered Dietitians on our team through our nutrition counselling services. Don’t forget to see if your employer health benefits cover the cost of a Registered Dietitian.
Our experienced and compassionate Dietitian team will meet you where you are at and help you custom-build strategies you can live with for life. For more information on our nutrition counseling services available at our Calgary office or by phone or video, get started on your nutrition journey by clicking the button below.
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About Andrea Holwegner
CEO, Registered Dietitian, Counseling Practice Director & Professional Speaker
Andrea the «Chocolate Loving Nutritionist» is founder and CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. since 2000. She is an online nutrition course creator, professional speaker and regular guest in the media. Andrea is the recipient of an award by the Dietitians of Canada: The Speaking of Food & Healthy Living Award for Excellence in Consumer Education....Read more