A few years ago, the low-carb diet craze was in full force and it looked like sugar might never return to society's good graces.

Sugar substitutes are a billion-dollar business. According to a national survey conducted by the Calorie Control Council, a sugar-substitute industry group based in Atlanta, 80 percent of adults use low-calorie and sugar-free foods and beverages.

Yet you can't really count sugar out. For one thing, every diet program recommends sugar substitutes, which keeps the taste of sugar in the minds of its dieters, and though that doesn't make a lot of sense because it's like Alcoholics Anonymous telling its members to drink non-alcoholic beer, it means that people prefer it. For another thing, we're in the midst of an 'organic' craze now and laboratory-created substitutes don't have the same cachet as all-natural sugar.

Science has added some new data that may help sugar advocates. A team of scientists at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh has found that a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet (containing sugar) combined with physical activity achieved the greatest health benefits in overweight subjects.

The study provides evidence that the exclusion of sugar, normally advocated in a weight loss diet, is not necessary to achieve weight reduction. In fact, the palatability of sugar may even help dieters stick to their eating plans.

As part of a 12-week program, 69 overweight women (average age 41 years; average body mass index [BMI] 32 kg/m2) were given advice on either diet, physical activity or both. A fourth group acting as the ‘control’ received no advice. Measures of body fat and markers of heart disease risk (such as waist circumference and cholesterol levels) were collected at the beginning and end of the trial.

The advice followed healthy eating guidelines and recommended:

* a reduced daily calorie intake, which was low in fat (35% of calorie intake) and high in carbohydrates (55% of calorie intake)

* that one tenth of their total calorie intake include sugar. To achieve this goal, subjects were advised to include high carbohydrate snacks such as low fat cereal bars and low fat yogurts (containing at least 20g sugar) between two and four times per day, depending on their energy needs.

* an increase in activity levels focused on including sixty minutes of brisk walking per day.

The researchers noted that after three months, the group combining the sugar-containing diet and activity changes recorded the greatest positive health outcomes, compared with diet or exercise alone. Significant reductions were observed in body weight (4.7% loss), waist circumference and percentage body fat. Measures of blood fats (total cholesterol and LDL) had also significantly improved.

‘This research contributes to the growing body of evidence that an effective way to lose weight is by adhering to a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet and by being physically active.’ commented Dr Drummond, adding ‘ it also provides evidence that the exclusion of sucrose, as is normally advocated in a weight loss diet, is not necessary to achieve weight reduction.’

The palatability of sugar may be making it easier to stick to the diet. As Dr Drummond points out ‘Compliance with this palatable low fat diet was excellent and when combined with increased physical activity resulted in significant improvements in body composition for this group of overweight women.’

This study highlights the need for dietary advice to accompany increased physical activity in order to achieve weight loss. It also demonstrates that a low-fat, high-carbohydrate, sucrose-containing diet combined with increased exercise can be effective for slimming. Further studies are now required to investigate which methods will motivate overweight individuals to adopt these lifestyle changes.

Source: The Sugar Bureau