Do I need sugar for energy?

Health, Nutrition
sugar cubes

In the American diet, the top sources are soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavored yogurts, cereals, cookies, cakes, candy, and most processed foods. But added sugar is also present in items that you may not think of as sweetened, like soups, bread, cured meats, and ketchup. via The sweet danger of sugar – Harvard Health

We may like the taste of sugar, but do we really need it?

Do I need sugar for energy?

Some time ago I met a woman who said to me: “Everyone needs some sugar for energy.” I pointed out to her that if this were really true the human race would have died out a long time ago, as sugar as a food is a relatively recent development.

But the advertisers have done a good job. In the UK we had a long running advertisement for a Mars Bar (a chocolate bar) whose slogan was “A Mars A Day Helps You Work Rest And Play”. But is sugar really good for us?

Some scientists have looked at what happens to your body after eating lots of sugar. They discovered that eating sugary foods can give you a “sugar crash”!

After feeding some people lots of sugar, the people said they felt really tired one hour after eating their sweet treats.

So rather than having a “sugar rush”, the science says people probably feel worse after eating sugar.

Different types of sugar

Firstly, there are different types of sugar. The main ones we are concerned with in this context is sucrose.

Fructose is a type of sugar found in fruit. (High fructose corn syrup is a different beast altogether, being highly processed fructose from corn.) Sucrose is a sugar made from cane or beet sugar. Fructose has a much lower glycaemic index than sucrose. In practical terms this means that it has a less dramatic affect on blood sugar than sucrose does.

In an ideal situation our bodies keep our blood sugar levels within tight limits, but sucrose enters the blood stream quickly raising our blood sugar levels suddenly, and giving us a quick burst of “energy”, but then blood sugar levels drop equally rapidly, leaving some people feeling tired, jittery, headachy and reaching for the next lot of sugar (or other stimulants such as coffee and alcohol) to make them feel better. If you were going to need to run away from a lion shortly or are in the middle of running a marathon, you might want food that has a quick effect on blood sugar levels in this way. But for most of us, in the long run, eating sucrose gives us less energy rather than more, because of the way it takes our blood sugar on a switch back.

Sucrose is usually regarded as empty calories – it is often present in foods that are high in fat and artificial colouring, and that have very little going for them nutritionally. John Yudkin a professor of nutrition wrote a book on sugar called “Pure, White and Deadly“. Fructose, on the other hand, is usually consumed by eating fruit, which has all sorts of other beneficial nutrients. It’s particularly good when it’s consumed as fruit (rather than fruit juice), as that way you get a lot of fibre as well.

Does blood sugar come from sugar?

Do we need sugar in any form? The answer to this is definitely ‘no’. Blood sugar, which gives us our energy to do things, is not necessarily made from sugar in food. Our bodies have a process known as catabolism in which food is broken down and turned into energy for the body.

Is sugar dangerous to health?

Should we avoid all sucrose? In an ideal world the answer to this is ‘yes’. Dentists would be delighted if sugar were banned (or maybe not, because they would be a lot less busy fixing people’s dental caries). A small amount of sugar is OK for most people.  There are some medical exception to this. But don’t try to convince yourself that sugar gives you energy or is necessary for your survival. It definitely is not – reducing your sugar consumption will undoubtedly help your health and well being.

In a study of female California teachers, American Heart Association researchers  found:

“drinking one or more sugary beverages daily was associated with nearly a 20% higher risk of having cardiovascular disease when compared to those who rarely or never drank sugary beverages. Daily consumption of fruit drinks with added sugars was associated with a 42% greater likelihood of having cardiovascular disease when compared to those who rarely or never drank sugary beverages.”

7 Things That Happen When You Stop Eating Sugar | Prevention  says:

“Your heart will do a happy dance. Your risk of dying from ticker-related trouble will plummet threefold, according to research from James J. DiNicolantonio, PharmD, a cardiovascular research scientist at St. Luke’s Mid-Atlantic Heart Institute in Kansas City, MO. Why? “Added sugar chronically raises insulin levels, which activates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing blood pressure and heart rate,” DiNicolantonio explains. “Within a few weeks’ time, you might expect to see a 10% decrease in LDL cholesterol and a 20 to 30% decrease in triglycerides.” Your BP would head in the right direction, too.”

When you find yourself reaching for the sugar or the shelves in the supermarket that contain highly processed foods, remind yourself that your heart deserves better. You deserve better.

How to reduce your sugar intake

It’s definitely not a good idea to do it quickly, but also don’t kid yourself that you are reducing your sugar intake when you’re not. Coral Sirett of Zest Health has lots of useful advice in her blog post How To Cut Back on Sugar When You Have A Sweet Tooth.

Should I use artificial sweeteners rather than sugar?

The dangers of sugar are clear, so many people think they are doing the healthy thing by choosing artificial sweeteners instead.

Ye the research does not support this. Dr Michael Greger of nutritionfacts.org explains:

“population studies tying consumption of artificial sweeteners, mainly in diet sodas, with increased risk of developing obesity, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. But an association is not causation. You’ve got to put it to the test. If you give obese individuals the amount of sucralose found in like a can of diet soda, they get a significantly higher blood sugar spike in response to a sugar challenge, requiring significantly more insulin – 20% higher insulin levels in the blood – suggesting sucralose causes insulin resistance, potentially helping to explain the links between artificial sweetener consumption and the development of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.”

Meghan Azad, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba, says there are some hypotheses as to why weight gain and artificial sweetener use seem to go together. Because of how the body is programmed to respond to sugar, our metabolic systems get confused when the sweet taste appears but there aren’t any calories to digest. Over time, the illusion might reprogram metabolic systems to become resistant to insulin or develop a glucose intolerance. via Do Artificial Sweeteners Actually Help With Weight Loss …

Thereis not enough research yet that clearly shows artificial sweeteners are a problem, but there is plenty of evidence that the more you eat whole nutrient-dense foods the more likely you are to thrive. Artificial sweeteners don’t fit in this category so are probably best avoided.