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Debunking 3 Sugar Myths

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These days many would consider "sugar" a bad word. The basis for such thinking is flawed, and the important thing to note is that sugar, in any of its forms, is not the enemy of our diets. Just like everything else, sugar needs to be consumed in moderation. It doesn't make sense to completely eliminate sugar from our diet.

When we blame just one nutrient as the fault in our eating regime we tend to lose the focus on our entire dietary pattern. It seems that carbohydrate chemistry and the human metabolism is much more complex than we originally thought and understood, so before you take any action, let's debunk three common sugar myths right now.

Myth #1: Is sugar toxic?

Stating sugar is toxic is not only irresponsible, it is incorrect. And its comparison to alcohol and tobacco is simply not reasonable. Describing sugar as toxic is extreme and it diverts attention away from the real problem of total overconsumption by North Americans.

It is too simplistic and unhelpful to blame sugar alone for the health crisis. Sugar is a food that is part of a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. Sugar is a source of energy (calories) for the brain and working muscles. Sugar is seldom eaten alone, but more often as an ingredient in foods that contribute fibre, vitamins and minerals such as fruits, vegetables, grain and milk products. It is not sugar that is the dietary delinquent, but the portion or dose people consume it in that is the concern.

Myth #2: Is there a sugar 'silver bullet' for your meal plan?
The answer is no. Just as completely cutting sugar out of the diet is not a silver bullet, considering one form of sugar as better than the rest is not scientifically substantiated. As North Americans, we consume a mix of sugars in our diets, including sucrose, fructose and glucose. Did you know table sugar -- known as sucrose -- and high fructose corn syrup have a similar composition of 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose? And the popular natural sweetener agave syrup averages 84 per cent fructose. So what does this mean to you? Translating the scientific information of sugar into accurate, easy-to-understand information for the consumer is necessary to achieve accurate health literacy, and to date, this has not been successfully done.

Many times we hear high-level statistics and findings from studies about sugar being a silver bullet or dietary delinquent and aren't given full detail on how the study was conducted or who the study was conducted on. The takeaway here is simple. Remember these three questions: 1) Are the diets in the study artificially contrived and based on animal models (e.g. not resembling a typical human diet)? 2) Was there over-feeding of one particular sugar or ingredient in the experimental diets? 3) Who were the participants in the study? All of these answers will help us to best interpret the study findings.

Myth #3: Is sugar the cause of obesity?
Stating sugar is the sole cause of obesity is not true. Obesity is a complex disease with many factors. Weight gain is a result of an imbalance between energy intake from all foods and beverages, and energy output (including basic body functions and physical activity). Sugar, like other carbohydrates, contributes calories. However, in terms of body weight, there is nothing unique about the calories from sugar. The same holds true for other sources of carbohydrates as well as protein and fat. In fact, fat has twice the number of calories as carbohydrates per weighted serving. Because no single factor causes weight gain, avoiding one specific food group or nutrient will not stop weight gain or lead to weight loss. If you need to lose weight, a slow and steady approach which exemplifies the notion of a balanced diet is needed for long-term success.

It is the overall quality and quantity of our diet that matters to long term health. Identifying just one villainous or virtuous nutrient is not only negligent; it also does not provide consumers with a rational approach to their daily and long-term dietary strategy. Remember: Balance is key!

Jane Dummer is a registered dietitian and expert in nutrition. Jane serves as a consultant to the food and beverage industry, including The Coca-Cola Company.

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