Is Refined Sugar Bad For You?

refined sugar
(Image credit: Unknown)

The latest science First, to be clear, ditching all sugars is madness – nobody’s advising that you drop all glucose, fructose and lactose from your diet. The refined kind is another matter. The current NHS intake recommendation is no more than 30g a day, or less than 5% of your calories – a limit largely based on links between the sweet stuff and chronic diseases including obesity and type 2 diabetes.

This is where things get tricky: the most recent review of studies, published in December 2016 in the Annals Of Internal Medicine, concluded that low-sugar recommendations are ultimately based on weak science. Other experts immediately countered that the review was funded by a trade board that includes representatives from Coca-Cola and Hershey. Meanwhile, researchers are working on establishing causal links between sugar and disease: rodent research suggests that a molecule known as TNF-alpha, which has highly inflammatory properties, might connect obesity with diabetes, and Why We Get Fat author Gary Taubes is leading the charge in trying to link insulin resistance to brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Ultimately, new research hasn’t come up with sound reasons to put you off sugar – but the fact that it’s so calorie-dense and nutrient-sparse should be enough to prompt you to minimise your intake.

The expert take “Yes, insulin inhibits fat oxidation and can increase fat storage,” says James Rutherford, a nutritionist and Bio-Synergy ambassador. “But taking in sugar at the right time can be beneficial for exercise performance. It’s best consumed when demand for energy is high, which means the best time to consume high-sugar foods would be around exercise.

“Increased glucose in the blood from sugar before exercise will generate energy to fuel the training session, especially if it’s of a high-intensity nature. Consuming some sugar after exercise will result in the increased blood glucose being moved to muscle cells to replenish muscle glycogen and aid with the repair process.

“At other times in the day when energy demand is low, though, muscles are not in a highly receptive state and therefore insulin moves glucose to fat cells instead.”

Do eat  Protein pancakes. “To slow the release of refined sugar, consume it alongside good-quality protein and fats,” suggests nutritional therapist Dr Christy Fergusson – in other words, treat your sweet tooth with a whey-packed snack and you’ll limit the damage. Alternatively, experiment. “Sugar alternatives such as honey can taste just as sweet but contain more nutrients and fibre,” says Fergusson.

Don’t eat Anything that gets the sugar into your system super-fast – that refillable chicken-shop Coke-bucket, say. You’ll jack your insulin levels sky-high, ensuring that you store fat as well as packing in a tonne of junk calories.

Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.