Can you have your cake and eat it?  An exploration of dietary sugar

As the sugar conundrum continues to gain momentum we aim to try to make sense of what has happened to our sugar intake and the impact it is having on the health of the population.

A recent government report now recommends no more than 5% of our calorie intake should come from "free sugars". The previous recommendation was 10%. The new advice says children aged 11 or over and adults should consume no more than seven teaspoons of added sugar a day – 30g, equal to less than a single can of Coca-Cola, which contains 39g. A single teaspoon of sugar is roughly 4g (4.2g actually)

Free sugar means all the different types of sugar we have in our diet, excluding the sugars found naturally in "intact" fruit and vegetables, in milk and milk products. Importantly, most of our free sugar intake comes from sugar added to food and drink by manufacturers.

What are the health risks associated with free sugars?

Since carbohydrate recommendations were last considered in 1991, the evidence that a high intake of free sugars is detrimental to several health outcomes has strengthened. According to Malhotra there are now eighty seven studies on the adverse effects of added sugar on health (and not a single one showing any benefits)

Increasing the amount of total calories coming from free sugars in food or sugar-sweetened drinks was linked to:

  1. higher rates of tooth decacy
  2. weight gain
  3. higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  4. increased risk of heart disease than those consuming less sugar

According to Zoe Harcombe PhD;

"Sugar is the only substance that humans ingest that has no nutritional value whatsoever, no essential fats, no protein, no vitamins, no minerals..."

How to cut down on sugar in your diet

Currently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has currently set the maximum limit target of sugar consumption per day for the average adult of no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar or free sugars.

Identify the sources of sugar in your diet, and decide what to cut out completely and what to cut down on.

You don't need to cut down on sugars found in fruit or dairy products because these foods contain lots of nutrients that are good for us.

It's the food high in added sugar – such as fizzy drinks, which contain lots of calories but few other nutrients that we should be trying to consume less of.

Added sugars shouldn't make up more than 5% of the energy (calorie intake) you get from food and drink each day. That's about 30g a day for anyone aged 11 and older.

Nutrition labels tell you how much sugar a food contains. If an item's total sugar content is more than 22.5g per 100g, it is high in sugar. Anything under 5g of total sugar per 100g is low. Even things that you don't think are sweet, like tomato sauce, crackers, condiments, and salad dressings can be packed with sugar

Watch out for other words used to describe added sugar in the ingredients list.

There are lots of different ways added sugar can be listed on ingredients labels:

  • sucrose
  • glucose
  • fructose
  • maltose
  • fruit juice
  • molasses
  • hydrolysed starch
  • invert sugar
  • corn syrup
  • honey

Some packaging uses a colour-coded system that makes it easy to choose foods that are lower in sugar, salt and fat. Look for more "greens" and "ambers", and fewer "reds", in your shopping basket.

Unhealthy carbs loaded with sugar can cause blood sugar to rise rapidly (and dive just as quickly, leaving you hungry again). To minimize this rapid rise and fall, pair protein, healthy fats, and fibre with your meal, all of which can slow down the release of blood sugar in your body and keep you full for longer.

When you are reducing your sugar intake, you may be tempted to switch to artificial sugars for your sweet fix. But resist!  These can mess up your taste for sweet - when you eat something sweet, your body expects calories and nutrition, but artificial sugars don't give your body those things. That may be why fake sugars are associated with weight gain—not loss, according to a 2010 review in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.

Add more flavour by using vanilla bean and vanilla extract, spices, and citrus zests to add sweetness to foods without having to use sugar—and for zero calories.

Even drinks that are considered healthy can contain more sugar than you are supposed to have in an entire day – always check the label.

At first, cutting down on sugar can feel like an impossible task. Eventually, though, your taste buds will adjust. Super-sweet foods will start to taste too sweet. When you could have a whole slice of cake before, now a couple of bites will be enough. You'll notice the natural sweetness in fruits and vegetables—and they'll taste better too.


Used with the kind permission of Alison Lambert who is an Occupational Health Nurse at Workfit.

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