Column: Is sugar bad for your health?

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote, “The peculiar evil is this: When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat wholesome food. You want to eat something a little bit ‘tasty.’ There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.”

Eighty years later, the same truth exists, but not only for the unemployed. A tough parenting day. A task you do not want to complete. Tasty foods are always just beyond our fingertips. Sugary foods trigger a dopamine reaction that make us feel temporarily happy. But when does an innocent indulgence cause harm?

This is difficult to answer as sugar causes pleasure at a price that is difficult to measure right away. To develop chronic disease, it takes years or decades of abuse before we see any effects. And how much is sugar to blame, compared with genetics or other risk factors like smoking or inactivity?

The World Health Organization (WHO), has taken a stand, recommending less than five per cent of your calories from sugar. For a 2,000 calorie diet, this translates to 25 grams or six teaspoons of added sugars (table sugar, honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates) per day. Sugars in whole foods like fruits or vegetables do not count.

Health Canada still has not made any specific recommendations, making one wonder if health information in Canada is too heavily influenced by food industry. The Canadian Sugar Institute (a national, non-profit association funded by sugar producers that provides a science-based Nutrition Information Service) frames our sugar consumption very positively (www.sugar.ca): “Canadians consume about 11 per cent of their energy from added sugars, well below the Institute of Medicine’s (the American version of Health Canada) suggested maximum of 25 per cent.”

Are refined sugar bad for your health? Yes.

Should we eat less of it? Yes.

Do we need to eliminate it completely? No.

We are human. We are going to eat what brings us pleasure. So maybe we need advocacy and policies in place that support us to make healthier choices more often, perhaps American diet patterns should not be used as our standard of health.

-Serena Caner is a registered dietitian who works at Shuswap Lake General Hospital.

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