Why you shouldn’t completely cut sugar out of your diet

While there is no question too much sugar is bad for you, cutting it out entirely may actually hinder you hitting your sweet spot when it comes to good health.

Gone are the days when fat was once framed as the evil ingredient adding to our waistlines because now, it seems sugar is the new number one enemy.

While we know most Australians are consuming a higher amount of sugar than recommended, potentially increasing their risk for conditions such as type 2 diabetes and obesity, some experts argue quitting sugar altogether may not be the best solution for your overall health.

What is sugar?

Sugar is a form of carbohydrate naturally found in many foods and can be an added ingredient to packaged food products, registered nutritionist and director of NPR Consulting Dr Courtney Thompson says.

However, this glucose is not to be confused with fructose as it has a different chemical structure, Courtney says.

“Foods higher in glucose often have a higher glycaemic index (GI), which means the body breaks them down quickly to give you rapid energy,” she explains.

“On the flip side, fructose containing foods often have a medium or low GI, so they are broken down more slowly to give you more consistent energy.”

Does your body need sugar?

While excessive sugar consumption can have negative health impacts, Courtney says carbohydrates are still the body’s preferred source for energy.

“This is because they’re easier to convert into glucose, which we need for the central nervous system, brain function, growth and repair.”

Glucose is essential in fuelling aerobic and anaerobic cellular respiration, processes known to help form energy for every living thing.

What happens if you don’t eat enough sugar?

Shift Nutrition dietitian Skye Swaney warns a blanket ban on all sugars does carry some health risks.

“Having a black-and-white attitude to food can lead to disordered eating habits and feelings of guilt and anxiety when the forbidden food is eaten, which can have a detrimental impact on mental health,” Skye says.

“It can also lead to an obsessive attitude towards sugar, as banning ourselves from eating certain foods tends to mean that we crave them even more.”

Dumping sugar from the menu can also lead to us mistakenly making unhealthy choices as many sugar-free diets are jam-packed with sweet alternatives, or so-called natural sugars including rice malt syrup and maple syrup.

“Due to a belief that foods made with these sorts of sweeteners are healthier, it’s possible for people to end up actually eating more sugar instead of less,” Skye says.

The dangers of sugar deprivation

“Without sugar, you’ll likely lack energy, feel more tired and irritable, and have trouble concentrating,” Courtney warns.

Other signs of a zero-sugar diet could also include headaches, dizziness and nausea.

How much sugar should you have a day?

The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends carbohydrates make up 45 to 60 per cent of our total energy intake, Courtney says.

“However, if we’re talking about added sugars like what’s found in your processed or refined options, the World Health Organisation recommends to limit consumption to less than 10 per cent of total energy intake,” she adds.

“Which is around 50g or 12 teaspoons per day.”

Best ways to eat the right amount of sugar

Check out these easy sugar-free ideas:

While occasionally slipping a sugar-free recipe or two into your meal plan may help regulate your processed sugar intake, Courtney advises opting for naturally occurring sugars and complex carbohydrates where possible.

“This means following the Australian Dietary Guidelines and including wholegrain breads, cereals, fruit, starchy vegetables, lentils, legumes and dairy products over refined options like lollies, chocolate and fast food,” Courtney says.

“Other more specific examples to keep your blood sugar levels in check include seeded bread, rolled oats, quinoa, beans and chickpeas.”

Skye also recommends aiming for balance, variety and moderation.

“Naturally occurring sugars in nutritious foods such as fruit and dairy products such as milk and yoghurt can stay,” she says.

“Focus on nourishing your body with a variety of nutritious foods that you enjoy, with room for some sugar here and there.”

For more sweet reads about all things sugar:

Written by Alex White. Updated by Melissa Hong, January 2024.