Image Credit: Shutterstock

Depending on how much sugar you add to your coffee or tea, you’ve already exhausted your maximum daily allowance, leaving no room for a sweet treat of any kind. Sure, that tea break provides a wonderful mid-morning energy boost, but even without counting that fibre-packed breakfast cereal, which claims to be fibre-packed, or the supposedly healthy flavoured yoghurt, it quickly puts you at risk of the triple whammy: diabetes, obesity and heart disease — with cancer and possibly dementia lurking in the wings. If that sounds alarmist, there’s good reason.

“Overconsumption of sugar is largely responsible for the worldwide obesity epidemic,” Dubai-based nutritionist and life coach Victoria Tipper tells Better Health. The UAE is the 14th fattest country on the planet, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), behind nearly a dozen tiny island nations, with the impact especially prominent among children and teenagers, with one in three overweight or obese. 

“Not only are adults developing obesity-linked diseases earlier than ever and at a greater rate, but these traditionally adult illnesses are now being reported in children,” Tipper says.

“Your body doesn’t need processed refined sugar. As well as its propensity to make us gain weight, sugar also wreaks havoc on our health in other ways. Sugar affects our microbiome, the bacteria and microbes that inhabit our body. The correct balance of bacteria and microbes boosts immunity, sleep and moods and produces beneficial nutrients, while helping keep us at a healthy weight.” 

Bad press

You can blame scientists for all the bad press that sugar’s been getting recently — but there is rather a lot of evidence sweetening the plot. The rise of obesity in the US corresponds with a tenfold increase in the amount of high-fructose corn syrup consumed between 1970 and 1990, for example. Another 15-year American study of more than 16,000 adults found that those consuming 25 per cent or more of their daily calories as added sugar were twice as likely to die of heart disease as people whose diets where added sugars comprised less than a tenth of total intake. 

Despite its deep cultural resonance, sweetness is a positive trait in several languages, for instance. And while happy moments all over the planet are celebrated with sugary treats, it turns out that the body doesn’t actually need any extra sugar. “Sugar is not an essential nutrient and there is no Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) set for it as we have for calcium, protein, fat, iron and all the other essential nutrients,” says Dr Wafaa Ayesh, Director of the Clinical Nutrition Department at Dubai Health Authority. 

Recommended daily allowance

“The WHO updated its recommendation for sugar from 10 per cent a few years ago to 5 per cent recently” says Dr Wafaa. “This is about six teaspoons or 25 grams on a typical diet. The WHO is also urging countries to follow suit with national dietary guidelines for sugar. Six teaspoons could easily be three cups of coffee — but modern lifestyles mean that we’re already consuming all the sugar we need in other ways — even in apparently healthy food choices such as salad dressings and breakfast cereals, in addition to baked goods and bottled condiments such as ketchup.”

Sugar tax

While the UAE hasn’t issued specific guidelines on sugar, it has had a national nutritional strategy in place since 2010, and obesity and health are on the government’s National Agenda in line with Vision 2021 goals. A year ago, authorities imposed a tax to curb the consumption of several harmful products, with the 50 per cent surcharge on soft drinks an early salvo in the battle for public health. 

That may sound rather depressing, but it isn’t all Dickensian bleakness. Naturally occurring sugars such as those present in fruit are generally all right, it turns out. “Fructose in fruits and lactose in milk that are present in their raw form in fresh, unprocessed foods are the most suitable kinds of sugar,” Dr Wafaa says. That’s because foods with natural sugars tend to be low in calories and sodium, and high in water content and important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. 

Such foods also offer several other health benefits. “For example, the fibre in fruits slows down how quickly it is digested, so you don’t get the same sugar spike you get after eating.”

That isn’t an excuse to overdose on natural sugar, though. In an indication of just how nuanced the picture is, an analysis of recent studies by University of Nottingham researchers concluded that a diet with more than 150g per day of fructose, the sugar contained in fruit, reduces insulin sensitivity, and increases the risk of conditions such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Tipper’s one of those who calls for moderation. 

“I am a firm believer in it’s what we do every day that counts and I certainly wouldn’t advise you have added sugar in your daily diet,” she says.