NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: Stop blaming everything on sugar

Sugar is not the reason for our epidemic of obesity and chronic disease. It is not as toxic as some experts argue. And completely removing it from our diets is not the silver bullet, Dave Shaw writes.
Is sugar as bad as we think it is? Photo / Thinkstock
Is sugar as bad as we think it is? Photo / Thinkstock

No single food or nutrient is at fault for our current state of health. It's not new nor is it a service to mankind to say "I quit sugar". We knew about the harms of eating too much years ago (from books such as John Yudkin's Pure White and Deadly), but our focus on fat caused uncontrollable tunnel vision.

The last few decades has seen our food supply dwindle in fibre and nutrients, with ultra-processed low fat foods staking their dominance on supermarket shelves. The food environment has changed to now become a daily fight for life.

This has arguably fuelled the fire for the demise of our health. There's no doubt that the belief that we should simply cut out all sugar is as insidiously harmful as believing we should cut out all fat. And as a result of the latter, Kiwis have forgotten the benefits of adding fat to our diet and now we are regretfully in a state of lipid-phobia.

Admittedly, many of us need to use more common sense when choosing what we throw down our gullet. We often pay more attention to our bank account than to our health.

It has been confirmed, released and re-released that we are eating too much sweet stuff and too much is harmful. As a result, our waistlines are widening, just like the food industry's pockets. A recent review by University of Otago researchers found evidence that a diet too sweet increases our risk of cardiovascular disease. It's our duty to know that soft drinks and lollipops don't belong in our bodies.

And as I write this, I see - yet again - David Katz has beaten me to the punch with his new blog that is sideways to sugar. But I'm going to carry on and hopefully through a combination of each, you will be able to clarify your thinking about this sweet, sweet world we live in.

What's at stake is not only your health, but also a clear mind that's not riddled with the misguided and infectious proclamations of unqualified nutritional do-gooders. So, let us start at ground zero.

Choose natural over added sugar
Sugar is either inherent in food or it has been added. Natural sugars like fructose, the fruit sugar, and lactose, the milk sugar, are healthy inclusions to your diet. Most of us need to ensure we get our daily servings of wholefoods that contain their own sugar. However, when a food comes with a glossy, sticky sheen and a wickedly sweet taste, then a common sense approach is warranted.

Sugar is not toxic
I'm actually wrong. Everything we eat can be toxic in too high a dose. Even oxygen and water can kill us if we have too much of it, yet we need both to survive. We don't necessarily need sugar to survive, which is where a lot of debate stems from. But when it comes bundled up with fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals - this means from fruit and vegetables - then one could easily argue the importance of some sugar in our diets.

Sugar has a hundred different names
Or close to. Our unhealthy obsession with healthy eating has directed the spotlight onto sugar unnecessarily. And this has led to an evolution in sugar-related names by the food industry. Food manufacturers are clever, but so are we. Make sure you read the nutrition label and empower yourself with the knowledge to identify what's really in the food you eat.

Watch out for processed foods
Since many of us like it sweet, sugar has found its way into every nook and cranny of our food supply. Breakfast cereals, sauces and some milks now stack more sugar in one serving than we should be having through the entire day. So send your taste buds to an unsweetened rehab session and retrain yourself to prefer the delights of what real, wholesome food tastes like.

Keep watching out for processed foods
Many processed foods, especially ultra-processed carbohydrate-based foods, can be just as harmful as eating too much sugar. Artificially sweetened baked products aren't exactly top pick for a glorified health product. Neither is the notion of 'clean eating' when you are devouring block after block of organically certified chocolate.

Personal tolerance
A little is fine, a little more is okay, but now it's a case of "Houston, we have a problem." Our tolerance to sugar varies from person to person. Some of us are lucky enough to be blessed with empty leg syndrome, whereas others have a sip of coke and their belt buckle strains, blood pressure skyrockets and lipid profile freaks out. We must eat according to our own needs and dare I say it, most of us should be cutting down on the sugar.


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NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave works in public health and alongside some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Whether it's for vitality, performance, identity or spirituality, Dave loves the way food brings people together. He believes that no one diet is the cure for our growing rates of chronic disease, but a diet based on wholefoods is the perfect start. Always keeping up-to-date with current evidence and food trends, Dave is a relentless researcher for how we should eat and likes to challenge what we may think about nutrition.

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