Sugar and The Skin

The Science behind the sugar debate

Sugar has no essential nutrients and simply contributes kilojoules.  Dietary Guidelines from the NHS Choices website recommends we limit sugar from our diet as it adds unnecessary calories, and like refined starches, it increases dental decay. However, there is no evidence that a totally sugar-free diet is needed. The World Health Organization advises limiting added sugars to less than 10% of total energy to prevent dental caries, obesity, and chronic disease. NHS Choices recommends that added sugars should be limited to less than 5% of total energy intake as a strategy for preventing excess weight (which is a risk factor for heart disease).

Sugar is the enemy of the skin

There is no scientific support for avoiding fruits and vegetables because of their natural sugar content. These foods also provide dietary fibre (which is nature’s obstacle to over consumption) as well as minerals and vitamins. Research also shows that consumption of fruit and vegetables helps control weight.

Research shows that fructose is problematic only in excess, and the basic problem in most cases is simply the extra kilojoules from a high intake of fructose. Research also shows that anyone who exercises regularly and pre-menopausal women, will be unlikely to have problems with fructose.

Sugar does not fulfil any official definition of ‘addictive’, although once our taste buds become used to sweetness, some people will overindulge in sweet foods.

Sugar or high-glycemic foods quickly convert to sugar. This in turn raises insulin levels and puts unnatural demands on your body to deal with the food you just ate.  Simple carbohydrates, like refined sugar, white bread and soda, cause your insulin levels to spike, which leads to what our skin expert, Sue Ibrahim, states as “Inflammatory responses in the skin”. Inflammation produces enzymes that break down collagen and elastin, resulting in sagging skin and wrinkles. Digested sugar permanently attaches to the collagen in your skin through a process known as glycation. 

Sugars – Acne, insulin resistance, pigmentation and facial hair growth

Aside from increasing the effects of aging, glycation can also exacerbate skin conditions like acne and rosacea. Plus, the more sugar you eat, the more likely it is you’ll develop insulin resistance, which can manifest as excess hair growth (hirsutism) and dark patches on the face, neck and in body creases.

Should I eliminate sugar from my diet altogether?

The most extreme form of a sugar-free diet restricts all foods that contain added sugars as well as fruit and any vegetables that contain natural sugars such as peas, carrots and parsnips. The less extreme form of the diet permits fruit (but not juices) and vegetables and restricts all added sugars, honey and processed foods that contain sugars such as sugar-sweetened drinks, confectionery, sweet snacks, biscuits, cakes, pastries, ice cream and desserts, sweetened yoghurt, most breakfast cereals, sauces, soups and marinades.

Some sugar-free diets claim that sugar is addictive and must be totally eliminated to ‘cure’ the addiction. However, there is no scientific support for avoiding fruits and vegetables because of their natural sugar content. These foods also provide dietary fibre (which is nature’s obstacle to over consumption) as well as minerals and vitamins. Research also shows that consumption of fruit and vegetables helps control weight.

Research shows that fructose is problematic only in excess, and the basic problem in most cases is simply the extra kilojoules from a high intake of fructose. Research also shows that anyone who exercises regularly and pre-menopausal women, will be unlikely to have problems with fructose.

How to cut down on sugar

  • Avoid foods that do not contain any necessary nutrients – for example, soft drinks and confectionery, biscuits and pastries.
  • Limit cakes and sugary desserts.
  • Read the ingredient list on breakfast cereals. Best sugar-free choices include oats or a quality muesli (check the ingredient list rather than the total sugars as this will include naturally occurring sugars in dried fruit), or any wholegrain product with less than 3% total sugars.
  • Read the ingredient list on products such as marinades and sauces. If sugar occurs as one of the first three ingredients, look for a healthier choice or make your own ‘from scratch’ using wine, different flavoured vinegars (for example cider or balsamic) plus extra virgin olive oil, any herbs or spices or garlic or onion.
  • Choose natural yoghurt and add your own fruit.

Watch out

Artificial sweeteners will also spike your insulin levels, so it is best to avoid them.

Sensible eating also involves long-term commitment so it’s usually best to avoid going to extremes as this can lead to feelings of deprivation. For example, it makes more sense to ask for a small serving of birthday cake or to share a small dessert with a friend rather than avoid all treats and then break out and binge.