Rebecca Prescott is a nutrition expert. This is a personal blog and views expressed are her own.

20 Apr 2012

The weighty issue of sugar consumption

People in the UK are significantly misjudging the amount of sugar in popular drinks, according to research revealed by the University of Glasgow, particularly those perceived as 'healthy' options.

2,005 people from across the UK were asked to estimate how many teaspoons of sugar were in some of the UK's most popular drinks. While people generally slightly overestimated the amount of sugar in carbonated drinks, they significantly underestimated the sugar levels in a milkshake, a smoothie, an energy drink and a variety of fruit juices by nearly 18 teaspoons (for one popular pomegranate juice drink).

Those surveyed were also asked to estimate their average weekly liquid consumption in detail, suggesting that the average person in the UK consumes 659g of sugar and 3,144 calories a week (which equates to 450 calories a day) through non-alcoholic liquid intake. This is the equivalent of nearly a quarter of recommended daily calories for a woman and a fifth for men.

The availability and consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks such as full-sugar carbonated drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks has increased considerably over the past two decades.

The survey revealed that 24% of those questioned didn't take into consideration their liquid sugar or calorie intake when they were last on a diet. Half of people who admitted to drinking three or more sugary drinks in an average day said they never compensated by reducing the calorie intake of their food.

Sugar, not calories

I have always believed – which has been further confirmed by my research into the subject – that people are becoming more and more overweight because of sugar, not fat. Dr Lustig, a professor of paediatrics in the division of endocrinology, describes sugar as a poison, and obesity isn't the result of calorie intake, but rather sugar intake.

Though this may sound extreme, his scientific theory behind this fact makes perfect sense. Ethanol is a carbohydrate and is found in alcoholic drinks, among other things. What I always remember Dr Lustig explaining in a lecture is that sugar and ethanol are metabolised in the same way in the body. Effectively, sucrose (sugar) is ethanol without the buzz of alcohol. Would you think twice about giving your child a can of Budweiser? What about a can of popular fizzy pop?

We're not just eating more, we're eating more sugar. The food and beverage industry has addressed the trans fat issue, which was highlighted a couple of years ago, but sugar content in products largely remains. It may be described as HFCS, or a number of other aliases to avoid consumer alarm bells ringing, but it's still sugar.

Studies have shown that sugar-laden drinks can prevent weight loss in overweight patients when consumed as part of an otherwise healthy diet. Even worse, a high sugar diet can prevent the negative feedback mechanism in our bodies that normally tells us to stop eating, resulting in a vicious cycle of overeating and weight gain.

The Archies once sang Sugar, oh honey honey. You are my candy girl and you got me wanting you. The reality is, the loveliness of loving you, unfortunately, is obesity.

So how do we stop liking you quite so much? This is the real issue that needs to me remedied (without a spoonful of sugar).

Rebecca is editorial assistant of