Other than their role in tooth decay, sugars have no direct relationship to any health problem. After careful review of scientiﬁc studies, that’s the conclusion of nutrition and health experts. Yet sugar myths are still widespread. Here’s the real scoop on four common misconceptions about sugar.
Linked to Hyperactivity?
Following an afternoon of sweet snacks, friends, and active play, kids may be “all wired up.” But don’t blame the candy, cupcakes, or sweet drinks for a “sugar high.” Sugar has been wrongly accused as a cause of hyperactivity or attention deﬁcit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Even though no scientiﬁc evidence supports any link between the intake of sugars and hyperactivity, many parents and other caregivers seem reluctant to put this notion aside.
The causes of nervous, aggressive, and impulsive behavior and a short attention span aren’t completely understood. But experts advise adults to take stock of a child’s overall environment. The excitement of a party or a special event, such as trick or treating or a visit to Santa and not the sweet snacks that go with the fun may be the reason for unruly behavior. To the contrary, some studies suggest that sugars may have a calming effect, but there’s still more to be learned; a body chemical called serotonin produced in and released from the brain may be a factor.
Again, the answer is no. Sugars don’t cause diabetes. Even though the scientiﬁc community debunked this myth almost twenty-ﬁve years ago, the misperception persists.
In diabetes, the body can’t use sugar normally. The causes are complex and still not fully known. Genetics certainly play a role, but illness, being overweight, or simply getting older also may trigger diabetes; being overweight seems to be a key factor in the growing diabetes epidemic.
While food choices don’t cause diabetes, diet is part of the strategy for managing diabetes along with physical activity and perhaps medication. To control blood sugar levels, people with diabetes manage the overall carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in their meals and snacks.
In the past, people with diabetes were warned to avoid or strictly limit sugar in their food choices. But today, experts recognize that reﬁned sugars, naturally occurring sugars, and starches have similar effects on blood sugar levels. For people with diabetes, the amount of carbohydrates, not the source, is the issue. In fact, blood sugar levels after a meal or a snack are linked to many factors, including how the food is prepared, the meal size, how much fat was eaten, the other foods in the whole meal or snack, the absorption rate of the sugars (digested from sugars and starches) and certainly a person’s health status.
According to current advice from the American Diabetes Association, moderate amounts of sugar can be part of a well balanced diabetic diet. For people with diabetes, a registered dietitian can help plan and monitor their diet.
It’s highly unlikely. Yet many people explain away anxiety, headaches, and chronic fatigue as hypoglycemia caused by eating foods with sugar. Often selfdiagnosed, hypoglycemic disorders are quite rare.
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is actually a condition, not a disease. Between meals, blood sugar levels naturally drop but remain fairly constant between 60 and 110 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) among healthy people. A signal for hypoglycemia is when levels drop below about 40 mg/dL. When blood sugars fall below normal levels, there’s not enough glucose immediately available for cells to produce energy. That can cause several symptoms, including sweating, rapid heartbeat, trembling, and hunger.
Among people with diabetes, hypoglycemia is caused by taking too much insulin, by exercising too much, or by not eating enough. In most other cases, low blood sugar is linked to other serious medical problems, such as liver disease or a tumor of the pancreas.
In rare cases, a disorder called reactive hypoglycemia occurs. As a rebound effect, the body secretes too much insulin after a large meal. The result is a drop in blood sugar well below normal, and symptoms such as shakiness, sweating, rapid heartbeat, and trembling may occur but not until about two to four hours after eating. These symptoms are not to be confused with extreme hunger, which is characterized by gradually increased stomach rumbling, headache, and feelings of weakness usually occurring six to eight hours after a meal.
If you think you’re among those rare cases and that you have symptoms of reactive hypoglycemia, pay attention to how you feel two to four hours after eating. Then talk to your physician about a medical checkup and testing your blood glucose level while you’re experiencing symptoms.
Also be cautious of so-called health clinics that diagnose “sugar-induced hypoglycemia” and offer treatment with costly remedies.
Makes You Fat?
Another no. Eating too many calories, not just sugars, causes your body to produce extra pounds of body fat. That includes too many calories from any source carbohydrates, fats, or proteins. Actually, excess calories from fat turn into body fat ﬁrst, before extra calories from carbohydrates do. Sugar itself isn’t the villain. Instead, being overweight results from a complex interaction of genetics, environment, inactivity, and overall food choices.
Contrary to what some popular diet gurus say, sugar won’t cause your body to make or store fat. It’s true that insulin levels rise when “carbs” are absorbed. That’s normal. Insulin regulates energy storage, allowing your body to move blood glucose elsewhere, perhaps to your cells for energy production or to your muscles or liver for storage. Once accomplished, insulin and glucose levels drop to normal if you’re healthy. Glucose is only converted to body fat if you consume more calories than your body needs.
Eliminating foods with sugars and starches isn’t the answer to weight loss either. The idea surrounding this myth probably relates to the “glycemic index (GI),” which rates foods by their ability to raise blood glucose levels. (From a scientiﬁc standpoint, this concept is quite complex. Among the issues, the GI of a single food is irrelevant in a mixed diet; we don’t know what happens when foods of differing GIs are eaten at the same time.) There’s no evidence that eliminating foods with a higher GI, such as baked potatoes, carrots, cornﬂakes, or whole grain bread, promotes weight loss; these same foods may offer phytonutrient beneﬁts.
Do people with weight problems have a “sweeter tooth”? And do they consume more sugars than normal weight individuals? No evidence says so. In fact, they may eat less sugar but perhaps more fat. For those who are calorie conscious, including some sweet ﬂavors may help to make a low calorie diet more appealing. So just because many people like sweet tastes doesn’t mean that eating sugary foods will lead to overindulgence. And eating sweets won’t stimulate the appetite for more!
To keep your weight healthy, you’re wise to control all calories, including those from sugars, in your food choices. Sugary foods for example, sweet, rich desserts and snacks can supply more calories than you need. Those extra calories may come from fats, as well as carbohydrates. A “fat tooth” rather than a “sweet tooth” may be why some people overindulge. To maintain your weight (“no gain, no loss”) when you’re cutting back on fat, replace lost calories with energy from complex carbohydrates. Choose more foods from the lower part of the Food Guide Pyramid. If you’re really physically active, sugars can help supply the extra energy you need.