Fact: Sugar intake is not associated with diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is not caused by one food but from a combination of diet and lifestyle risk factors.
Of all the nutrition myths around, this one is the big daddy of them all. I used to work for a diabetes organisation and this old chestnut came up time and time again. Eating sugar is not implicated in the development of either type 1, or type 2 diabetes. At this stage type 1 diabetes is not preventable.
Type 2 diabetes is one of the fastest growing diseases in the world. So what do we know about preventing it? We know a healthy diet and lifestyle is crucial. The biggest risk is being overweight or obese. Diabetes Australia says up to 60% of diabetes cases could be prevented by staying in the healthy weight range. Carrying fat around your middle is particularly risky. The excess fat makes insulin resistance – the underlying cause of type 2 diabetes – worse. Smoking increases the risk of everything, including diabetes.
Keeping fit and active is protective – we all need to manage more movement in our day (I’m currently trying to stand up every time I’m on the phone). Large scale population studies show when it comes to food, those with the lowest risk eat the most cereal fibre and polyunsaturated fats, and eat diets low in glycemic load and trans fats. A meta-analysis authored by our own Dr Alan Barclay found those eating the highest GI diet had a 40% higher risk of type 2 diabetes than those with the lowest GI diet. Selecting lower GI and wholegrain foods in a balanced diet is a positive step toward a future free of diabetes.
Why has the ‘sugar causes diabetes’ myth persisted? Probably in part because diabetes is simply explained as ‘too much sugar in the blood’, and was even called ‘sugar diabetes’ in the past. The leap of logic is obvious. However what is not obvious is that eating table sugar (sucrose) does not dramatically increase the sugar (glucose) in the blood. The effect of foods on blood glucose levels – we now know – is described by the glycemic index (GI). The GI of table sugar is in the medium range at 65 and dwarfed by high GI foods such as Turkish bread (86), mashed boiled potato (91) or jasmine rice (89). Not that I’m suggesting we avoid high GI foods and eat lots of sugar, but we can stop avoiding added sugar totally and demonising it as a cause of diabetes.
We can enjoy added sugar in moderation: a spoonful of sugar can help nutritious foods go down. I love a drizzle of honey (just another form of sugar) over my low fat natural yoghurt, a spread of marmalade on my wholegrain toast, and the ability of sugar to produce delightfully light and airy low fat ice cream. I still add half a teaspoon of sugar to my morning coffee which – to my tastebuds – provides just the right balance to the bitterness of the coffee. I see no reason to change. It’s simply another case of ‘a little bit of what you fancy’ is OK.
Nicole Senior MSc (Nut&Diet) BSc (Nut) is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist and author of Eat to Beat Cholesterol and Heart Food containing evidence-based, trustworthy advice about eating well for your heart. Check out her website HERE.