The dangers of sugar

Obesity is big news in the UK and the health problems associated with being overweight, not to mention what many would consider the pressure to look good, means thousands of Brits embark on new diets each year.

Sugar health risks

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But counting calories doesn't necessarily mean you are eating a healthy, balanced diet. In fact, evidence suggests the type of calories you are consuming is key to looking and feeling healthy.

A recent study, published in the journal PLoS One, found that in countries where people had greater access to sugar, the rate of diabetes was higher. The report revealed that for every 150 kcal of sugar - the amount found in a can of Coke - for example, the rate of diabetes rose by 1.1%.

So what exactly are the dangers of too much sugar, and how can you cut your consumption?

Sugar and your health
As most kids are often advised, too many sweets rot your teeth. But the health risks associated with sugar, particularly refined sugar, or sucrose, can be far more serious.

Research suggests that high levels of sugar in the body can trigger the development of type 2 diabetes. This is because the pancreas is forced to produce ever increasing amounts of insulin, the hormone that controls and stabilises blood sugar levels, in order to cope with the increased sugar in the blood.

As a result, not only does the pancreas begin to fail, but the body's cells become increasingly resistant to the effects of insulin, allowing blood sugar levels to remain high and potentially causing insulin resistant type 2 diabetes. And this progressive disease doubles the risk of stroke within five years of diagnosis, and can lead to serious heart, kidney problems, nerve damage, and if left untreated, can affect the blood vessels and circulation.

Furthermore, processed sugar puts an extra strain on the liver, which can lead to fatty liver disease and eventually liver failure.

Sugar and your appearance
As well as the potentially serious health issues associated with high levels of sugar, you may find a high-sugar diet has a negative impact on your appearance.

The truth is, it's not sugar per se that rots your teeth. In fact any carbohydrate you consume causes plaque bacteria to produce acid, and it is this that begins to erode tooth enamel. That means a bag of crisps is just as likely to cause cavities as sugar. However, if you regularly sip on fizzy pop throughout the day, the constant flow of sugar is a definite problem.

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that those with high blood sugar levels look older than those with healthy levels. A 2011 study, published in the journal Age, found that people with higher levels of glucose looked, on average, a year younger than those with low blood sugar levels. The researchers that conducted the Unilever study suggest that a build-up of sugar sticking to the collagen, which keeps the skin plumped and supple, could be to blame, although a generally unhealthy diet undoubtedly plays its part.

Cutting your sugar intake
The task ahead of anyone keen to cut their sugar consumption is made all the more difficult by labelling. Sugar appears on labels in many, many guises, including corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltodextrin and sucrose among others. It can also be found masquerading as carbohydrate, so it's important to check the 'carbohydrates (of which sugars)' section of the nutritional information - more than 15g of total sugars per 100g of food is high, 5g or less, low. Added sugars are also often found in foods where you might not expect them, such as bread, so a thorough check of the labels in your shopping trolley is essential.

Elsewhere, it pays to begin weaning yourself off a high-sugar diet. For instance, gradually reduce the amount of sugar you add to cereal, hot beverages, and try cutting out a third of the sugar in cake or biscuit recipes if you are a keen baker.

Sweetened drinks, such as fizzy pop, are especially bad for you, since you get all the sugar without the nutritional value, so keep the kids away from these empty calories and give them water or milk. And remember that the naturally-occuring sugars in fruit are all well and good, but with the fibre removed from juices, those sugars are much more dangerous, so don't go overboard with this 'healthy' drink option. Either drink juice with a meal or opt for the whole fruit as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Has a high-sugar diet impacted your health? Leave your comments below...