5 sugar myths

Many people think sugar is fattening, rots the teeth and makes kids hyperactive.

These myths have been around just about as long as sugar itself. Yes, large amounts of sugar are bad for you and will make you fat, but so does fruit juice, bread and well, everything if you eat enough of it. Too much of anything could in fact kill you – and that includes water.

“Sugar is a food that is part of a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle,” explained Duduzile Mthuli, the nutrition manager from the South African Sugar Association (SASA) at a breakfast in Cape Town hosted by SASA.

Balanced diet with exercise

As with many things, it's all about balance.

“If you want to maintain your body weight, you need to balance your intake with your exercise,” said Dr Louise van den Berg in support of Mthuli at the same breakfast.  As a senior lecturer at the Free State University, Van den Berg's specialist subjects include obesity, diabetes, cancer and micro-nutrients.

Van den Berg explained some of the myths surrounding sugar and how scientific studies contradict theses myths.

Myth 1: sugar makes you fat

Sugar, like many foods, is high in carbohydrates and as a result, eating lots of it without exercising will contribute to becoming overweight.

However, studies have found that a “moderate amount of sugar in an energy-restricted diet does not negatively affect weight loss, compared to diets that do not contain added sugar,” van den Berg says. She added that other studies have found that people who had a high sugar intake tended to have a lower fat intake and, as a result, were not overweight. 

 “Fat is more fattening than sugar” van den Berg noted.

Myth 2: sugar gives you diabetes

Sugar does not cause diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association and many other scientific bodies.

“Diabetes is caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors. However, being overweight does increase your risk for developing type 2 diabetes. If you have a history of diabetes in your family, sticking to a healthy diet and regular exercise are recommended to manage your weight,” according to a SASA nutritional hand out document.

SASA spends a lot of time and money educating healthcare professionals on subjects such as diabetes, obesity, HIV and Aids, oral health and nutrition.

Myth 3: sugar rots your teeth

One of the oldest myths about sugar is that it causes dental cavities.

Van den Berg also mentioned that all carbohydrates start to digest in the mouth and are then converted to sugar. She stressed that the human body does not distinguish in any way between the different sugars. That means your body doesn't really distinguish between a white-bread sandwich and a sweet.

It is important to note that because of this, the longer your teeth are exposed to acid-generating foods (such as fats and oils, fruits, dairies, pastas alcohol, sugar etc), the higher your chances of getting cavities. Van den Berg says a few ways to protect your teeth are to drink using a straw, consume sugar together with other foods and to drink milk after meals to minimise damage to the teeth.

Myth 4: sugar makes kids wild

We all know the story: take your child to a party and when you get him back, he'll be bouncing off the walls. Many parents associate parties with sugar and hyperactivity in their children. However, a number of studies have investigated this relationship and found quite the opposite. Sugar makes you sleepy, not hyperactive. Van den Berg suggests that it is not the sugar that makes your child ‘crazy’, but rather the excitement of the event.

Myth 5: you can be a sugar addict

According to Van den Berg, no food substance can cause a physical food addiction. However, sugar does raise the levels of serotonin in the body (which elevates mood).

Sugar does not deserve the bad press it is getting, according to Van den Berg. It can enhance the flavor of more nutritional foods and, in moderation, can be such a simple pleasure in life. The key is to not overdo it and to exercise regularly. With a balanced diet, a healthy lifestyle and a little self control, we can all enjoy sugar without the guilt trip.

(Megan McLean, Health24, September 2010)

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