Sugar is not your friend. It may feel like your friend when it comforts you on a lonely evening, but it is not the kind of friend that you want to have. In actual fact, sugar is an evil back-stabbing friend that erodes your health and your youth.

Regular consumption of sugary foods is one of the worst things that you can do to your health. As a Naturopath, I consider it to be as bad as smoking. I am trying to avoid sounding melodramatic, but my 15 years experience in the clinic has taught me that most of my patients have absolutely no idea at how bad sugar really is. I hope that some forceful words might get the message out.

Rethink a "Normal" diet.

Our Standard American/ Australian Diet (SAD diet) contains an astounding amount of refined sugar, but we don't realise how abnormal that really is for our bodies. So many patients, after removing sugar from their diet, and feeling better for it, then say: "But when can I go back to eating normally?"

Yes, we grew up with sugar as children. Yes, we think it a normal part of diet—but is it normal? Does our body experience it as a normal diet?

Our body's physiology is millions of year old, and our ancient metabolism is "calibrated" to a time when our ancestors simply had no access to refined sugar. Those ancient humans didn't have cakes or biscuits or sweet yoghurts. They were often in danger of starvation and were lucky if they came across the occasional piece of fruit or honeycomb. It was our prehistoric need to seek out high-calorie foods that give us our preference for sugary foods now. Our appetite for sugar is the appetite of our "inner caveman". Our logical brain knows that we're not starving now. Sugary foods are not needed.

Just how bad is sugar?

The World Health Organisation recognises refined sugar as a major source of overeating and obesity, and they recommend that sugar be limited to less 10 percent of calories.  In contrast, the average sugar consumption in Australia is 20% of calories and rising.  Soft drink consumption among Australian children has increased 30% in 10 years and is directly blamed for the increase in childhood obesity.  Just one 600ml soft drink contains over 12% of the calories that a teenager should be consuming in an entire day.

The American Heart Foundation says that women should not consume more than 25 grams (6 tsp) of sugar per day. In contrast, most women in the US consume 100 grams (22 tsp). Australian figures are similar.

Where is the sugar?

sweet biscuits    
soft drink
fruit juice
ice cream
flavoured yoghurt
muesli bars
some meal replacement shakes

Sugar is a "Carb"

Refined carbohydrates cause weight gain, and sugar is worse than any other carbohydrate. I have had patients tell me that they virtuously avoid potato and rice, just to then succumb to a sweet biscuit after dinner. This kind of "low carb" diet will gain you absolutely nothing. There is no point avoiding "carbs" if you do not avoid sugar.

To repeat: sugar IS a carbohydrate. It is a very, very bad carbohydrate.  It is the king of bad carbohydrate.

For some people, a little bit of rice or potato with the main meal may be necessary to feel satisfied. This will prevent sugary snacks later on.

Need more convincing?

The evidence against sugar is solid. Consumption of refined sugar directly contributes to the following health problems:

  • Insulin Resistance
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Elevated cholesterol (Sugar is worse than saturated fat for your cholesterol)
  • PCOS
  • Cancer
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Immune Dysfunction
  • Imbalance of digestive flora
  • Thrush/ Candida/ Yeast infections
  • Depression
  • Acne
  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Eczema

Rapid Ageing

Need another reason to avoid sugar? Then consider that it causes skin and other body tissues to age more rapidly.

When sugar binds to the protein in our tissue and skin, it causes them to stiffen and to form "cross-links" which damage tissue integrity and function. The result is poor skin tone, wrinkling, and ageing. This process is accelerated when blood sugar is high, such as after a sugary meal.

Another way that sugar causes the body to age is that it causes the release of excess insulin. Insulin has been shown to limit the lifespan of cells. It is the chemical signal that determines when a cell has lived long enough and it's time to die. With every insulin release, cell membranes become a little bit more insulin resistant. This is how insulin exposure speeds up the rate of ageing.

Sugar Addiction

What if you know that sugar is bad, but cannot seem to be able to give it up? You may have a sugar addiction.

Sugar addiction is real. This has been demonstrated in a number of different animal studies. Refined sugar has a chemical, drug-like effect on the brain. It is addicting in the same way that alcohol and cigarettes are. No wonder it is so hard to give up!

Sugar addiction is an emotional addiction, as well as a physical addiction. It needs to be approached on many levels. For more information on ways to deal with emotional addiction, see our Emotional Eating article. You may want to recruit support mechanisms such as a professional psychologist or a meditation practice.

Steps to overcome sugar addiction.

  • withdrawal phase (see below)
  • emotional support and physical support to manage the cravings (see Sugar Detox below)

.......14 Day Sugar Withdrawal

  • Commit to 14 days sugar-free. I used to persuade patients to 'just have less'. I now realise that occasional sugar only feeds the cravings. The only way to get past the cravings is to go cold turkey for 14 days.
  • Plan ahead for your sugar withdrawal. Consult your diary, and choose a fortnight when you will not have too many demands. The withdrawal will be demanding enough.
  • Forgive yourself. You are not a bad person because you like sugar. Your genes and our Western diet were stacked against you. This is not a time to blame yourself. Instead, it is an opportunity to escape sugar, and to give yourself a gift of better health.
  • Eat regular meals that contain vegetables, protein, healthy fat (including butter and coconut milk), and healthy starch such as rice or potato.
  • Be gentle with yourself. You will need more care and comfort during your sugar detox. Rent a movie, go for a massage, lie in the sun.
  • Exercise. This will help your mood, and your sleep, and make the whole process easier.
  • Sleep 8 hours. Sleep deprivation causes sugar cravings, so do not make this harder for yourself than it needs to be.
  • Nutritional supplement to reduce cravings: B-complex, zinc, magnesium, chromium.
  • Herbal medicine such as Gymnema can also be helpful to reduce cravings. Consult your practitioner.

Sugar substitutes

Artificial sweeteners are not the answer because they do their own damage. New research from Duke University has found that sucralose (Splenda) reduces the good bacteria in the intestine and interferes with the absorption of many medications. Another sweetener, aspartame, has been linked with cancer and thyroid disease.

Furthermore, artificial sweeteners have been shown to disrupt normal appetite control and cause weight gain. Sweeteners cause excessive eating because they trick the brain into feeling hungry all the time. A study at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found that each daily can of diet soda increased the risk for obesity by 41%

Rather than seeking substitutes, it's better to retrain your taste buds to be happy with less sweet.

If you really cannot survive without sweet, especially in the early stages, here are some sweeteners that you can probably get away with:

  • Stevia is a safe herbal sweetener that may have the additional benefit of improving insulin resistance.
  • Xylitol is a "sugar alcohol" extracted from corn. It contains about 60% the calories of sucrose and does not cause a blood sugar spike. "Sugar alcohols" are not true sugars or alcohol, but are a short chain carbohydrate with a hydroxyl group added. Other examples are sorbitol and mannitol. They remain mostly unabsorbed in the intestine, and can, therefore, cause loose bowels in some people.

Fructose: Low GI but a big problem for insulin

Traditionally, nutritionists preferred fructose because it is lower GI, and causes a slower rise in blood sugar. Now, there is evidence that this sugar does more harm than good. The problem is the way that fructose behaves in the body. It is not absorbed straight into all of our cells the way that glucose is. Instead, fructose must be dealt with by the liver. This puts stress on the liver and the result is elevated uric acid, cholesterol and blood pressure. Fructose also causes inflammation and inactivates the insulin receptor.

Fructose also causes digestive problems in some people who lack the enzyme to deal with it.

Fructose is not all bad. It occurs naturally in honey and fruit, and in small amounts, those foods are fine. As long as the total amount stays below the limit of what the liver can deal with. The modern use of sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose (table sugar) take fructose consumption well beyond that limit.

What about fruit?

Whole pieces of fruit contain healthy fibre and nutrients, so fruit is great to eat in moderation. Experts advise against giving young children more than 1 or 2 servings of fruit juice per day, and care should be taken with dried fruit and fruit juice.

What about honey?

Honey is 70% fructose, so it needs to be used sparingly to stay below the limit of how much fructose the liver can deal with it. At a maximum dose of 1 or 2 teaspoons per day, raw honey is a healthy food. It provides nutrients, enzymes and it is a powerful natural antibiotic. Raw, unpasteurized honey is available from health food stores.

Dark chocolate

Chocolate itself is healthy. It contains antioxidants and flavonoids that prevent disease. Conventional chocolate treats contain a lot of sugar, and that is bad. If you love chocolate, then choose dark chocolate that is 70% or 80% cocoa. It contains very little sugar (just a couple of grams).

Please read Why I Ask Some Patients to Quit Sugar.