I remember a time in my life when I was afraid of sugar. Bless my poor friends when I made an ‘ice-cream’ cake out of frozen blended bananas and a sugar-free chocolate protein ‘cheesecake’ for my 16th birthday party. And pity my poor parents for the years they had to endure my attempts to recreate once nostalgic recipes as sugar-less, bland and tasteless imposters.
In the not so distant past, fat was the ‘evil’ dietary villain. Before that, it was salt. The newest dietary villain to join the line-up of persecuted food groups is sugar – and what a better way to eliminate sugar than to follow a sugar-free diet! But what exactly is a sugar-free diet?
Sugar-free diets encourage people to avoid everything from table sugar to sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, refined flours, soft drinks, condiments, sweets and some fruits such as bananas. Basically anything that tastes good, am I right?
Why are so people jumping on the sugar-free wagon?
Sugar, consumed in excess, may lead to obesity, and therefore increase our risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. And it’s true we Australians are eating too much of the sweet stuff – with 35% of our total energy intake coming from “discretionary foods” (think chocolate, soft drinks and lollies).
But there is no reason to quit sugar altogether. Not because eating too much sweet stuff isn’t bad for you (I wish it wasn’t). But despite what sugar-free diet advocates may have you believe, a ‘moderate’ intake of refined sugar can still make up an acceptable part of your healthy diet.
Furthermore, upping your daily vegetable intake, cutting down on ultra-processed foods, cooking your food from scratch (no more packet noodles, okay) and limiting the extra sugar you eat and drink will likely improve your health more than quitting sugar will.
As someone who spent many years avoiding sugar out of fear of gaining weight, the sugar-free diet to me, is just like any other diet, albeit it ‘low-fat’, ‘low-carb’, ‘paleo’ or ‘clean eating’. It imposes nothing more than a set of arbitrary rules that at worst, can create food fear or an unhealthy relationship with food.
The ‘Sugar-Free’ Deception
White granulated sugar has become the victim of the healthy eating brigade, while “natural” sweeteners like maple syrup, honey and rice malt syrup have been touted in some way as being better for us.
I was scrolling through Facebook last week when I came across a popular food magazine promoting their sugar-free recipes. I won’t deny, the recipes looked and sounded delicious! A ‘sugar-free chocolate and sticky date pudding’, a ‘healthy snickers bar’ and a ‘sugar-free wagon wheel slice’ featured in the decadently delicious collection of ’25 treats you won’t believe are sugar-free’. It couldn’t be true… how could anything that looks and sounds that good possibly be sugar-free, and good for me too?
I stumbled across Susie’s response to the recipe collection in the comments section…
“let’s make their recipe for ‘sugar-free chocolate and sticky date pudding’, it’s ‘healthy’ and ‘sugar-free’ and ‘guilt-free’!!”
Unbeknownst to Susie, none of the decadently delicious recipes were ‘sugar-free’ at all. No, it isn’t the white ‘villainous poison’ your sweet Grandma uses to make your favourite chocolate biscuits. These recipes contained only the most expensive, exotic ‘sugar-free’ alternatives – such as rice-malt syrup, honey and medjool dates. Plus an extensive list of (equally expensive) wanky ingredients like coconut oil, chia seeds and cacao powder.
Funnily enough, these exotic ‘sugar-free’ alternatives contain exactly the same number of calories per gram as any other sugar. And as for added nutritional benefits… well, I’m sorry to say there aren’t any! Here’s the thing – sugar posing as exotic, more expensive sugar is still… sugar. And you can’t say no to Grandma’s chocolate biscuits!
It took me a long time to realise that eating a little bit of sugar, among other foods I fearfully avoided, was not going to kill me. When I quit sugar, I also quit some of the greatest pleasures of life – like eating Grandma’s chocolate biscuits. Sure, it’s great to up your daily vegetable intake, cut down on ultra-processed foods, cook more meals from scratch and watch how much extra sugar you’re eating and drinking, but you don’t have to quit sugar altogether to improve your health.