Why quit sugar?

Friday 15th January 2016

A friend recently asked me to look into the I Quit Sugar phenomenon, to see if it has any health benefits. I'd never even heard of it, here's what I've learned.

 

Do what?

Sarah Wilson, an Australian journalist, decided to 'quit sugar' in 2011 as part of a newspaper column she was writing. She was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease in 2008 and was looking for ways to improve her health. According to Wikipedia she "has often said that she was addicted to sugar as a child".

The book was an enormous success, and led to a sequel I Quit Sugar for Life published in 2014, as well as spin off books I Quit Sugar Christmas Cookbook I Quit Sugar Chocolate Cookbook and so on. You get the idea. 

 

What does "quitting sugar" even mean?

You may well ask.

Before I started reading up on what "quitting sugar" meant it made me irate, because there's no way you could ever avoid all sugar. Nor would you want to - sugars are an important source of fuel for almost every living organism.

Let's have a quick biochemistry lesson.

 

What's sugar?

Sugars are small molecules, little rings of carbon with oxygen and hydrogen attached. Some of them are well known, like glucose and sucrose, but there are others like fructose, lactose and maltose.

Sugars are usually found on their own (like glucose), attached in pairs (sucrose is glucose and fructose joined together) or in short chains. If you join a whole bunch of sugars together then you get things like starch, which is made of glucose. You can make glucose syrup by breaking down starch with hydrochloric acid, something I keep meaning to try. 

Sugars are found in practically every food source: fruit, vegetables, bread, milk - and of course cake.

 

So what is she on about?

Contrary to the name I Quit Sugar, Wilson is actually talking about reducing the amount of processed foods and specifically fructose in her diet.

Fructose is mainly found in fruits, but it's also half of the sucrose molecule (along with glucose). To quote her website:

What are we referring to when we say “sugar”?

  • Sucrose (ordinary table sugar) is made up of 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose.
  • It’s the fructose bit that we’re referring to in our name I Quit Sugar.
  • Other sugars (glucose, maltose and lactose) are safe to eat in moderation. But fructose is not.

In an article in The Guardian in 2013 she elaborated further:

This is what quitting sugar is about – quitting the (mostly) processed foods saturated in (regular) sugar.

Why target fructose? Well, because it's the only food molecule on the planet not recognised by our bodies and is, thus, metabolised in detrimental (to our health, wellbeing, longevity and looks) ways once we put it in our gobs. It wreaks metabolic havoc, leading to a host of diseases, shuts down our appetite mechanism, causing us to eat more of everything, and makes us fat, in part because it's largely processed in the liver.

I don't know about you, but my science alarm bells have started ringing. Let's look at that last statement:

  • it's the only food molecule on the planet not recognised by our bodies

It is recognised by our bodies, there's an enzyme specifically designed to break down fructose, fructokinase, which is the first of many steps that your body takes to make use of it.

  • It wreaks metabolic havoc, leading to a host of diseases

There are specific diseases where you shouldn't consume fructose, but if you don't have those then it shouldn't cause any problems if you're consuming it in moderation.

  • causing us to eat more of everything, and makes us fat

The evidence is slim on this, with more research needed. Some studies have found that over-consumption of fructose is associated with fatty liver, others have found that it isn't associated with weight gain. 

Then there's this from her website:

Fructose is addictive. Some studies say it’s more addictive than cocaine and heroine [sic].

Really? Where are these "studies" published, because I can't find a single scientific study that backs up this claim.

And finally this, also from her website:

So why isn’t our book (and website) called I Quit Fructose, then?

    To be honest, it’s not very catchy, is it?

No, but it would have been more accurate. She also hosted a show called Eat Yourself Sexy so she's obviously more concerned with good names than science. 

 

Should I cut down the amount of sugar I eat?

Probably, but you probably eat too much generally, and if you're anything like me your diet could definitely be improved. I'm not a doctor, so take any my advice with a pinch of, er, sugar.

New UK government guidelines will recommend consuming no more than 30g of sugar a day. There's 35g of sugar in a can of Coke. Do you ever drink Coke? If so, the government thinks you should have less sugar.

They also say you should stop smoking, and drink a maximum of 14 units of alcohol a week. Doing both of these will make a definite, scientifically provable improvement in your health.

For example cigarette smokers at age 35 are twice as likely to die before they reach 65 as non-smokers. 89% of lung cancer deaths in England are caused by smoking. If you're going to carry on smoking then by all means have another cake - your time is limited.

 

Should I quit sugar?

Sure, why not. Try it if you like, it's unlikely to make anything worse and you might feel better. But this isn't the magic diet that suddenly makes your life wonderful again. As the wonderful Ben Goldacre, champion of evidence-based medicine (and who is a doctor) says, "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that".

If you're tired and stressed the whole time, you probably need to cram less into your busy life and sleep more. If you're overweight then you need more exercise and less food. If you're depressed then you need to seek treatment. And some problems just don't have solutions, as horrible as that sounds. If you've got terminal cancer, cutting down on fructose isn't going to help.

Think carefully before you sign up to Sarah Wilson's £80 programme. Can you improve your diet on your own, without her pastel website and irritating smile? Do you want to quit sugar because you know you're not taking very good care of yourself, and you're looking for an easy fix?

Something as simple as keeping a food diary has been shown to help with weight loss and improve diet. I used the free MyFitnessPal mobile app to track my food intake for three months and it made a huge difference to the way I eat.

 

Any more advice, Dr Mat?

I've told you before, I'm not a doctor. But I make a point of ignoring every new popular fad diet, because I just don't believe that any of them work.

Your digestive system is an incredibly beautiful, complicated process which has evolved over millions of years to ingest pretty much anything you can eat and keep you alive (unless you have a specific disease like Coeliac). Your liver does an almost magical job of removing toxins from your body without any help from you, despite the amount of alcohol you make it process.

I once spent three miserable weeks doing a Carol Vorderman "detox" diet (whatever that means) and discovered that, surprise surprise, I'm not lactose or gluten intolerant but I am grumpy when I'm not allowed any milk or wheat.

I don't smoke, I don't drink, I'm fairly fit, I'm not overweight, but I do eat considerably more than 30g of sugar a day.

Am I going to die? Absolutely, and so are you.

 

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