Should I reduce my sugar intake?

Well…. It depends!

Where do you find sugar in food?

Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds, and dairy products. Processed foods such as lollies, chocolate, fruit juice and soft drink are very high in sugar. Cane sugar or raw sugar (along with honey and other syrups) is the most refined form of sugar, that is added to many foods nowadays.

What is the problem with sugar?

Naturally occurring sugar in fruits, vegetables and whole grains is rarely a problem as it is packaged up with fibre which means it is released slowly into the bloodstream and does not cause a sudden spike in blood sugar= provides the body with a steady stream of sugar in the blood which can be used for fuel or stored for later.

The problem occurs when the fibre is taken away- e.g. fruit juice or when refined sugar is used to create an ultra-processed food- e.g. fruit juice. Without the fibre to slowly release the sugar into the bloodstream, we end up with a spike in blood sugar. When this high blood sugar comes crashing down, we feel not so good! Our pancreas also must work hard to produce enough insulin to get this sugar out of the bloodstream and into the body’s cells. If it is having to work too hard, it may become less efficient and not produce enough insulin. And just like the little boy who cried wolf, the cells may stop listening to the insulin as they don’t want to take on any more sugar.

Without the fibre, these foods aren’t filling, and we are likely to overconsume them. If we sat down to eat an orange, we would probably stop at just 1, whereas a glass of orange juice can contain 4+ oranges= you are just getting the sugar without the fibre.

Sugar is also often combined with fat in processed foods, resulting in hyperpalatable foods- i.e., foods that are made for us to want to overeat. Think donuts, chocolate bars, pastries, cake. It is not the sugar alone making us crave this food, but the clever combination of fat and sugar that leaves us more likely to overeat these foods.

Are there any benefits of sugar?

A small amount of sugar in the context of the whole diet is not a problem. For example, the sugar naturally occurring in whole foods are not something to worry about. Even small amounts of chocolate, pastries, fruit juice and other processed food are not a problem. But if these foods are taking up a large part of your diet, they could contribute to weight gain, energy slumps, Type II diabetes/insulin resistance and other health concerns.

There can be a time and a place for sugar, however. For athletes in high aerobic sports such as football, soccer, long-distance running, sugar may play a beneficial role. We know these sports are fuelled by glucose (aka sugar). We want athletes in these sports with full glucose stores in their bodies at the start of their event. It would be very difficult for their stomachs to manage a sweet potato or a bowl of pasta right before running on the field/track, and it would take a while before the sugar is broken down able to be used. In this instance, fruit juice or lollies can be a good option to top up their glucose stores before their event. Similarly, if the event is 90 minutes or longer, they may need a carbohydrate top-up during the event= lollies, sports drink or fruit juice can be a useful way to get this extra sugar for energy without upsetting the stomach.

How much sugar is okay?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends adults and children reduce their intake to less than 50 grams (~12 teaspoons). This includes things such as fruit, juices, and honey. But reducing sugar to even lower amounts than this may provide even more health benefits. A diet based of whole fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, legumes, sugar-free dairy products and nuts/seeds is likely to be the best for health. But there is no problem with enjoying some cake, chocolate, or juice on special occasions.


About the author

Cheyenne Holman

Cheyenne Holman

Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD)
Accredited Sports Dietitian
Certified Personal Trainer
Yoga Alliance Certified Yoga Teacher