Sugar is in almost everything that we eat and drink, but do we really know what it does to our body?
It has become public enemy number one for the health conscious, replacing both fat and carbohydrates as the thing that you should really be looking out for in your food.
More and more companies are making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of sugar they add to their products, but as a nation, we are consuming more of it than ever before.
At a time where there are growing numbers of people focused on what they eat and their overall health, we take a look at the truth about sugar and find out what you can do to reduce your intake.
Charlotte Stirling-Reed BSc (hons), MSc, RNutr (Public Health) is a Nutrition Consultant whose blog, SR Nutrition,covers everything from child nutrition to collaborations with the likes of the BBC and believes that sugar doesn’t need to be completely cut from your diet:
“There is no need to completely ‘give up’ sugars in the diet as, with sugars, it’s very much about how much and how often you’re consuming them. Most of us eat more than double the recommended maximum sugar intake and therefore could do with cutting down on the sweet stuff.”
As Charlotte says, there is no need to completely remove sugar from your diet and besides, it is very difficult to do so.
Sugar is in the majority of what you eat and drink, and although you can guarantee a reduction in your sugar intake by cutting out added sugars to your hot drinks or by removing foods high in sugar from your diet, you will still be consuming it.
“Reducing your sugar intake should mean that you’re more in line with a “healthy diet” and could help to encourage you to make better food choices day to day,” said Charlotte.
Elsewhere, Alex Curtis, RD, who is a registered dietitian and is helping to educate people through her blog, A Spoonful of Sugar Free, outlined the benefits of reducing your dependency on sugar.
“Many people find that after a few weeks of reducing added sugar intake cravings decrease dramatically. Every person varies, but benefits may be increased energy, decreased headaches, and decreased inflammation.”
Sugar has no nutritional benefit to your body. Whether you are adding a teaspoon’s worth to your tea or you see that your dinner has some high fructose corn syrup, you will find that you are just adding empty calories to your diet. Charlotte explained the effects of not monitoring your sugar intake.
“Eating too many calories from sugars could lead to excess weight gain. Additionally, you might find that overconsuming sugars means you’re displacing other healthier foods in your diet. Eating too many sugars also puts you at risk of dental decay, especially if you’re eating sugary foods on a regular basis! Lastly, if you’re consuming sugars in the form of soft and fizzy drinks, you could be increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”
Foods and drink that have high levels of fructose can overload your liver. When you consume sugar, it enters your bloodstream before being broken down into either glucose or fructose. Glucose is found in every single living cell and is produced by our bodies, while fructose has no physiological benefit whatsoever.
Fructose has to be metabolized by your liver, which can be full of glycogen and eating any extra fructose may force the liver into turning it into fat. This can happen when you eat large amounts of sugar in one sitting, particularly after a meal, and can lead to liver disease and similar related metabolic problems.
Alex delved into the science behind our sugar cravings and why so many of us have that urge to reach for the chocolate bar:
“Sugar is a highly addictive substance, which you can read more of in this article: Psychology of a Sugar Addiction. Studies have found that it activates the same brain waves and neural chemicals as cocaine, and it can be just as addictive. It is also an unnecessary calorie leading to weight gain, decreased insulin sensitivity (leading to diabetes), and spikes and drops in energy.”
It is an extremely difficult task to give up sugar completely. Much of the food we consume has added sugar to some extent and although this isn’t a major problem if monitored, it can build up with any added sugar you consume.
Cutting back on sugar is very feasible if you have a plan and understand the simple steps that you can take to reduce your intake. Some people book a boot camp to help put them on the path to a healthier life. We asked Alex for her top advice for cutting back on sugar and how to fight cravings:
“I write a lot on that here, but my biggest advice is to get plenty of sleep and never go hungry. When we are hungry or tired we crave lots of unhealthy food and quick energy sources (like sugar). So eat 4-6 small meals throughout the day with lots of water in between.”
It was a big thing when those green, orange and red wheels were introduced to food packaging a few years ago. But people still find it hard to really understand what they are putting into their bodies.
“Checking labels on food packets can help, especially comparing the carbohydrate ‘of which sugars’ section on the back of the pack, which can allow you to select lower sugar options.”
As Charlotte says, checking the labels of food packets can really help you understand and measure your sugar intake.
If you are clearly able to see that one particular type of sauce contains ‘X’ amount of sugar, you can look around to find an alternative that is lower. However, as we discuss later, sugar can be hidden in plain sight.
There are plenty of ways to cut back on sugar and healthier alternatives are the easiest ways of doing it, as Charlotte explains:
“Swapping snacks is a really effective way to cut back on sugars, so choosing healthier alternatives such as nuts and seeds, vegetable sticks and dips and crackers and cheese as options to consume between meals (instead of sugary options) can really work.”
When cooking you can add spices as an alternative to sugar. Spices are surprisingly transferable, so when you are next tucking into a dessert or snack where you would normally add a bit of sugar why not try some cinnamon?
Opting for wholegrain foods rather than the usual white bread, pasta or rice is also a good way of cutting back your sugar consumption.
“Ultimately it may be about trying to re-train your taste buds to enjoy foods with less of a sweet kick – this can take time – but anecdotally many registered nutritionists have seen it work really well, especially when it comes to cutting back on sugar in hot drinks,” said Charlotte.
Think moderation; if your sugar tooth suddenly creeps up on you then limit yourself to a singular treat. It is very easy to help yourself to a few sweets from the bag and before you know it you have devoured the entire thing.
Why not just limit the amount of sugary treats in your home and replace large bags of sweets with small individual portions, limiting your intake.
By cutting back, you will actually help reduce your cravings. Research has proven that when participants were shown a milkshake, the same neurological reward centres were activated as cocaine.
Eating too much sugar actually shuts down the healthy dopamine signalling, which means that you need to consume more sugar each time to trigger the pleasure signals.
When you cut back on sugar, it allows these signals to strengthen, meaning that you can enjoy small amounts of the sweet stuff more.
There are two kinds of sugar that you are likely to come across – naturally occurring sugar like lactose and the added sugar (sucrose) that you would add to your tea.
This ‘free’ sugar, like the one you add to your hot drinks, is the one that is added to your food and drinks.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggest that just 5% of your daily calorie intake should come from added sugars, which equates to 30 grams. For children it is even less, with recommendations ranging from 19-24 grams depending on age.
When you wander the aisles in your local supermarket, your attention is drawn to the ever-growing number of ‘low fat’ or ‘fat free’ options available to you. But tread with caution. These ‘diet’ foods are often laced with sugars to make up for the taste and texture that is lost when you remove the fat. Charlotte knows where the sugar is hidden in your food and told us how to spot it:
“Sugars often come under numerous names on food labels. It’s also hard to distinguish between those sugars that are naturally occurring in, say, some raisins, and those sugars that are added into the foods.
“Try and compare the 100g column AS WELL AS the ingredients list and look out for any ingredients that look like they may be added sugars. Many ingredients that end in ‘ose’ as well as honey, syrups and juice concentrates all count as ‘free sugars’, which are the ones we are recommended to be cutting back on.”
But it is much harder than you think to look out for hidden sugar in the food labels. Despite the coloured wheels appearing on packaging symbolizing green for low content, orange for moderate and red for high, sugar sneaks in through its 60 different names.
Companies are finding slight loopholes in the system and are using alternative names, like ‘Agave nectar’ or ‘fruit juice concentrate.’ Changes are being made, as Charlotte points out, but there is still much to be done:
“Remember that the food industry ARE working on reducing sugar in our foods, but it’s a slow and challenging process. This means that you have to be savvy with checking labels and in the portion sizes and frequency in which you consume foods with added or free sugars.”
There is a great deal more sugar in your condiments and juices than you would think. Though orange juice sounds like a healthier choice compared to a fizzy drink, some brands can actually contain as much sugar as a carbonated beverage. The same goes for ketchup or similar sauces, though companies are making improvements when it comes to the amount of sugar in these condiments.