Many of us are more interested than ever in how food can (and can’t) support our health.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when humans only had access to sugar for a few months a year when fruit was in season. Some 80,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers ate fruit sporadically and infrequently, since they were competing with birds.
Consumption of high fructose corn syrup in the US increased tenfold between 1970 and 1990, more than any other food group. Researchers have pointed out that this mirrors the increase in obesity across the country. sugary drinks, which usually use high fructose corn syrup, have been central to research examining the effects of sugar on our health. One meta-analysis of 88 studies found a link between sugary drinks consumption and body weight. In other words, people don’t fully compensate for getting energy from soft drinks by consuming less of other foods – possibly because these drinks increase hunger or decrease satiety.
High fructose corn syrup isn’t the only kind of sugar seen as problematic. Added sugar, particularly fructose, is blamed for a variety of problems.
it’s said to cause heart disease. When liver cells break down fructose, one of the end products is triglyceride – a form of fat – which can build up in liver cells over time. When it is released into the bloodstream, it can contribute to the growth of fat-filled plaque inside artery walls.
people who consumed 25% or more of their daily calories as added sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than those who consumed less than 10%. Type 2 diabetes also is attributed to added sugar intake. Two large studies in the 1990s found that women who consumed more than one soft drink or fruit juice per day were twice as likely to develop diabetes as those who rarely did so.
Tappy points out that athletes, for example, often have higher sugar consumption but lower rates of cardiovascular disease: high fructose intake can be metabolised during exercise to increase performance.
studies have demonstrated other ways in which sugar affects our brains. Matthew Pase, research fellow at Swinburne’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia, examined the association between self-reported sugary beverage consumption and markers of brain health determined by MRI scans. Those who drank soft drinks and fruit juices more frequently displayed smaller average brain volumes and poorer memory function. Consuming two sugary drinks per day aged the brain two years compared to those who didn’t drink any at all. But Pase explains that since he only measured fruit juice intake, he can’t be sure that sugar alone is what affects brain health.
Teaspoon of sugar
While current guidelines advise that added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 5% of our daily calorie intake, dietitian Renee McGregor says it’s important to understand that a healthy, balanced diet is different for everyone.
While there’s disagreement around how different types of sugars affect our health, the irony is we might be better off thinking about it less.