The Lowdown On Sugar: Is Sugar As Unhealthy As Everyone Claims?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 1:34pm

By John Messmer, MD

Much has been claimed about sugar’s bad effects on weight, behavior and disease, but little if any proof has been forthcoming. Simply put, sugar is not bad for you; it’s all in how you use it.

Different types of sugar

Sugars can be simple, such as glucose (also called “dextrose”) and fructose, or joined together to form larger sugars called disaccharides. Examples of disaccharides include sucrose (one glucose and one fructose), lactose (one glucose and one galactose), or maltose (two glucoses together). Many glucose molecules joined together make glycogen, an energy source stored in the liver and muscles. Glucose molecules in another form make the starches that are found in fruits and vegetables. Glucose, then, is an essential nutrient for us and is found in many foods.

How your body uses sugar

Glucose is the primary energy source needed for our bodies to work, and it is the only reliable source of energy for the brain. Our cells can burn fat for energy, but the process is slower and less efficient. Because glucose is used quickly compared to fat, blood glucose drops quickly after a meal that is mostly sugars or starches. In most people, the body responds when glucose level is low by increasing the amount of certain hormones which break down glycogen to make more glucose. These hormones cause the sensation of low blood sugar. In healthy people, the blood sugar does not go below normal.

Sugar does not cause hyperactivity, even though some parents insist their children are more hyperactive after sugar. Perhaps some kids are responding to the sudden rise and fall of their blood sugars when they eat a lot of sugary foods at once.

Sugar’s link to obesity and health problems

Over the last four decades we have decreased our consumption of sucrose (which comes from sugar cane and sugar beets) and increased our intake of high fructose corn syrup, (which is chemically similar to sucrose except the glucose and fructose are not joined). Some claim that this trend is a contributor to our increasing obesity. However, it’s important to note that people are simply consuming more calories overall. And increased calorie intake—whether sugar, fat or protein—causes increased weight.

Some people claim that refined sugar is causing health problems. But there is simply no evidence that the sugar is a problem. A much bigger problem is that people are substituting refined sugar for fresh food and consuming sugary foods rather than whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Whole grain bread is better than donuts, whole grain cereal is better than sugary kids’ cereals, and fresh fruit is better than syrup laden canned fruit.

Eating sugar does not cause diabetes. Type I diabetes is caused by immune system damage to the insulin producing cells in the pancreas, and type II is caused in most people by being overweight. Sugar can be part of a diabetic’s diet in moderation and as long as it is balanced with the rest of the diet and the person maintains a normal weight. Too much sugar makes diabetes worse, but it does not cause diabetes.

It’s practically impossible to avoid sugar in food, but what about candy and other sources of sugar? As long as our diets are generally healthy and our weights are normal, it’s okay to include sweets in moderation, that is, as a small part of our total food.