The Lowdown on Sugar


By Marcus O’Neill, MSc RD


The holiday season is right around the corner.  For many of us that means sweets and treats are abound in the workplace, at family get-togethers and at parties.  All of that extra sugar in our diets can’t be good for us, right?  Let’s take a look at what the science says.

What is sugar?

First it’s important to establish exactly what sugar is.  Sugar is a term that encompasses a group of compounds that fall under the larger classification of carbohydrates, more specifically simple carbohydrates.  When reading an ingredient label, sugars are easy to spot – they all end with the letters “ose”.  Some of the more common sugars you’re likely to encounter in your diet are glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose.

Most digestible carbohydrates, whether they are simple or complex (i.e. starches), are broken down into glucose or fructose before they are absorbed into the bloodstream where they can be used for energy or stored as glycogen.  Each gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories (vs. 9 calories/gram for fat).

Sugar is naturally found in many of the foods we eat, including fruits, vegetables and dairy products.  It is also added to many processed foods to improve flavours and textures and increase shelf life.  Your body does not distinguish between natural versus added sugar.  It treats both the same.

Does sugar cause disease?

There have been numerous studies examining the role that sugar plays in the development of many diseases including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia and depression. While there have been some studies that appear to show a positive correlation between sugar intake and certain diseases (in in vitro studies and using animal models), the majority do not.  It is also important to note that there is little to suggest that sugar plays a direct role in the development of disease in actual human trials.

So should you even bother monitoring your sugar intake?

It’s still a good idea to keep an eye on how much sugar you consume. While there may not be anything inherently toxic about sugar, foods that are packed with a lot of added sugar tend to be high in fat and calories, leading to weight gain; which is one of the top risk factors for the development of many of the diseases listed above. At the same time these high sugar foods are typically void of other nutrients so there’s little nutritional upside for overindulging.  If you’re still craving sweetness and don’t want to miss out on that holiday baking, opt for foods containing low- to no-calorie artificial sweeteners.

The Bottom Line

Sugar might not be the toxic additive it is sometimes made out to be, but it’s still a good idea to try to limit your intake during the holiday season (and frankly all year round).  That means keeping an eye on the extra desserts, chocolates, candies and sugar-sweetened beverages you consume, all while monitoring your overall diet quality and calorie intake. If you really want to indulge, do so, but ask yourself, “What’s the least amount I can eat that will make me happy?”  If you’re honest, this tends to be a good guideline to follow which will still allow you to eat the foods you love, but reduce the amount of sugar and/or calories you would otherwise consume.



Marcus O’Neill is a Registered Dietitian from Canada, currently residing in Maadi. He can be reached by email at, or you can follow him via Twitter (@marcusoneillrd), or his website (

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