With Easter around the corner most of us are thinking about chocolate (well at least I am).
And chocolate means sugar and fat.
I have previously said my piece on fat, particularly saturated fat as in coconut oil and butter, so now my attention is turning to sugar. Despite what you have may have heard, sugar is not toxic and is most definitely not akin to heroin or cocaine!
The likeness between sugar and drugs was made due to the similarities noted in the brains ‘pleasure’ response – but does this substantiate the claim that it is toxic and the sole cause of the obesity epidemic and all lifestyle related disease as has also been claimed? Short answer, NO! (1)
There has been speculation that this ‘pleasure’ response leads to addiction and dependence on sugar, however, this effect is not limited to sugar. Similar addictive responses have also been link to salt, fat, fast food (and not just the food but also the packaging) and even eating in general. (2, 3, 4)
Many other facets of a healthy lifestyle also trigger ‘pleasure’ responses within the brain – exercise and sex come to mind, should we ‘quit’ these too? (5, 6, 7)
Our brains are in fact wired to ‘reward’ survival orientated behaviours such as reproduction and seeking food, particularly energy dense foods like sugar and fat, which theoretically are advantageous for survival.
This being said, I am certainly not implying that ‘free’ or ‘added’ sugars (those which do not occur naturally within foods), should be consumed in exponential amounts, but certainly can be included in moderation, without guilt or worry, in a well-balanced diet.
We understand that infants to have an innate preference for both sweet and fatty flavours as ‘safe’ and energy dense, but an aversion to sour and bitter which may contain compounds that are toxic. (8, 9, 10) Furthermore, in developing food preferences in children we understand that the foods provided to a child when they are most hungry become preferred and an association is developed with the food and a desirable feeling of satiety. (9,10)
Given these facts, it is no surprise that many people believe they “crave” foods high in sugar, fat and salt as a result of our societies over dependence on processed foods which has conditioned us to perceive satiety and ample energy to be derived from these foods.
Thus we have now identified that sugar itself is not the problem, nor is fat or salt, but a societies dependence on processed, highly refined products which are laden with all three of these dietary constitutes, readily available and consumed in excess.
A "Sugar Free" Diet
I have been called a “Mainstream Nutritionist,” a label I in fact wear very proudly. As a “Mainstream Nutritionist” I practice and preach evidence based, best-practice nutrition founded on up to date scientific information and consensus - not media hype, fads or tactical marketing ploys or misconceptions.
This being said, the Australian Dietary Guidelines is the go to diet for good health. Quite simply this “diet” primarily prescribes consumption of ‘real’ whole foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, unprocessed lean meats, milk, cheese and yoghurt, with a realistic allowance for ‘discretional’ foods such as processed meats, chocolate, chips, lollies, alcohol, soft drinks, cordials and biscuits, which can be enjoyed in moderation.
Moderation is the key here, with the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommending “free” or “added” sugar be kept to less than 10% of energy requirements and the same allowance of 10% of energy for saturated fat. It is certainly not necessary to cut out sugar or saturated fat completely, but follow this ‘diet’ and meet these recommendations by predominately choosing whole foods.
Unfortunately within our ‘obesogenic’ society we seem to have forgotten that food not only provides nourishment for our body but also provides a social and cultural commodity to be enjoyed, savoured and experienced. The pleasure of eating and sharing a meal is a basic quality of life.
With Easter just around the corner most of us are thinking about chocolate – but this doesn’t mean we are addicted to sugar or should not enjoy the traditions of this holiday which include family, connectedness and simple pleasures in life. Of course, as with all aspects of our health, moderation is key.
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.