Food & Nutrition

Is sugar really that bad?

Sweet foods give us pleasure, so our brains want more. But are some people wired to like sugar more than others? And do we need to quit sugar to be healthy? Read on for our sugar myth busting.
Published 22 April 2019

Do I need to give up sugar?

Honeybunch, sugar pie, sweet pea: words of endearment are so often linked to sweetness. You’d think we’re all captivated by sugar or something. And you’d be right – we just can’t get enough of the sweet stuff. Australians consumed 60g of “free sugars” daily in 2011-12, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). That’s equal to 14 teaspoons of white sugar added to foods by manufacturers, chefs or you. By far our main source of free sugars – an estimated 81 per cent – is energy-dense, nutrient-poor “discretionary foods”. And over half our intake comes from sugary drinks such as soft drinks, electrolyte and energy drinks and cordial. What is it about sugar that makes us love it, and is it as harmful as every second news report seems to make out?

Myth 1 - All sugar is bad for you

At a chemical level, sugars are simple carbohydrates that supply the body with energy and occur naturally in whole foods in different combinations. It’s when sugars are artificially extracted and added to processed foods that they can become problematic.

Comprehensive, systematic reviews clearly demonstrate there’s a link between refined sugar intake and obesity. According to one study published in the British Medical Journal in 2013, potential causes for this are that sugary foods and drinks provide more energy than we burn off, and beverages are less filling than solids – so we drink more. With obesity being a major risk factor for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers, it’s no wonder we’re told to eat less sugar.

But Dr Alan Barclay, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia and accredited practising dietitian, says sugar in moderation won’t harm you. “You don’t need to cut out all sugars as they occur naturally in foods, such as fruits and dairy. But try to reduce foods with added sugars, and preferably swap them for nutritious foods.”

Myth 2 - My sweet tooth makes me want more sugar

In neuroscience, food is what’s known as a “natural reward”. Our brains are wired so that we find behaviours such as eating, having sex and caring for others pleasurable and so repeat them, meaning we survive as a species.

Explains Barclay, “The taste buds in our tongues detect nutrients in food and send signals throughout the body to get it ready to digest. Food also stimulates our brain, as eating is one of life’s pleasures.”

Not all foods offer equal joy: we’re biologically hardwired to choose sweet foods. When our ancestors were gathering snacks in the wilderness, sweetness was synonymous with safety. Where bitterness flagged a food as potentially poisonous, and sourness meant it wasn’t ripe, sweetness signalled a healthy source of carbohydrates.

This sweet bias starts at birth and declines into adulthood, says Barclay, “but it’s still usually number one”.

What then drives the intense desire for junk foods? According to psychologist Sarah McMahon, responses in the body and brain work in tandem to encourage us to eat sugar and, when we eat a certain volume of it, have a strong urge for more.

In the brain, she says, sugar consumption triggers the release of dopamine: a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. “Eating sugar makes us feel good! And we want that feeling to continue.”

Physiologically, our blood sugar levels initially spike when we eat simple carbs – and then crash. “This increases appetite, tiredness and food-seeking behaviour, resulting in a biological drive to want more sugar to experience a high again.”

Myth 3 - Sugar cravings come from the brain

Sweet desires don’t all stem from our biology. Psychologist Sherisse Cohen explains that eating is triggered by conscious or unconscious physical, environmental and emotional cues. Physical triggers could be thirst, fatigue or pain; environmental cues could be time of day. Emotions such as stress, boredom, loneliness, anger or happiness may also trigger eating. “Someone who struggles with anxiety or low mood may habitually turn to food to help them cope or soothe themselves,” Cohen says. “Often these habits were developed in childhood and in some cases sweet food was a ‘reward’.”

Our association of sweet foods with everything from “treat” to “terribly naughty” needs a revision, adds McMahon. “Unless we assume a more neutral stance on sugary foods, eating them will always be a psychologically and socially loaded experience.”

Myth 4 - You should give up all sugar

If you like sweet foods, it may feel as if it would be difficult to give them up – and it’s best you don’t, says McMahon. It’s more important to establish balance, she says, with lots of “everyday” foods and some “sometimes” foods. “We also need to work towards eating intuitively, trusting the hunger and fullness signals our body provides, and honouring these with decisions regarding what and how we eat.” Understanding your triggers and developing self-acceptance also helps, Cohen adds. “Changing your relationship with food and your body is really about changing your relationship with yourself.” And she says it’s not about ditching all sugar. “It is about moderation and learning that it’s OK to have these foods occasionally without punishing yourself.”