Recently a certain sweet talker has been demonised as the cause of a global health epidemic. But how do we go about breaking up with sugar – and can we still be friends?
The main problem with sugar is that the way we eat has changed and it’s now hidden in so much of the food we consume that we’re overindulging without being aware of it. Things that were once considered healthy such as vegetable soups, pasta sauce, yoghurt and muesli all contain significant quantities of hidden refined sugar.
As well as increasing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancers, too much sugar depletes the immune system, contributes to learning difficulties, anxiety, depression and mood swings plus it disrupts the balance of bacteria in the gut.
Sugar is also highly addictive and has been shown to have a drug-like response in children and adults.
Nutritional information panels on packaged foods don’t always help us navigate the sugar minefield, as different types of sugars are usually disguised or listed together as one component under the label ‘sugar’.
My book contains in-depth information, recipes and a list of healthy food swaps to help you easily limit your intake but below are six steps to help you quit or at least cut down on sugar.
6 steps to break up with sugar for good (but still be friends)
When it comes to reducing our sugar intake, the first step is understanding the difference between added sugars and intrinsic sugars. You are specifically looking to monitor the amount of added sugars in packaged foods.
These are any sugars that are added to a product, including processed sugars such as cane sugar, golden syrup, treacle as well as natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, brown rice syrup and molasses.
Intrinsic sugars are those sugars that occur naturally in food like lactose in milk and fructose in fruit. To reduce the added sugar in your diet, choose fresh or minimally processed foods.
Look for products with less than five percent added sugar – especially if there is no fruit or dairy present in the food, as these contribute naturally occurring sugars, which do not count towards your overall sugar intake.
The key is to always read nutrition labels carefully – even if the package says ‘100% juice’ or ‘25% less sugar’, sugar can still be hiding under a different name. Some hidden names for sugar include: corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltodextrin and glucose.
The consumption of sugary drinks has been linked to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dental cavities and even lower fertility.
The World Health Organisation recommends consuming no more than 12 teaspoons of added sugar a day and yet an average can of cola contains seven teaspoons of sugar and a bottle of energy drink up to 14 teaspoons.
Reduced or ‘zero’ sugar versions are actually worse due to the potential risks associated with them. Soft drinks, including all fizzy drinks, flavoured milks and energy drinks and vitamin water as well as fruit drinks and juices, provide no necessary nutritional value to our diets and yet are a major source of calories.
So, do yourself a favour and drink water, and on the occasion when you want something extra, opt for kombucha, a homemade smoothie or coconut water instead.
While freshly squeezed juice is healthier than store-bought juices that often contain as much sugar as fizzy drinks, juice doesn’t contain the fibre or filling qualities of whole fruit.
Fructose, the naturally occurring sugar in fruit, has the lowest GI of all naturally occurring sugars which means it produces a slightly slower increase in blood sugar levels than sucrose.
In whole fruit, it is loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants but once all this is stripped away during juicing, our livers have no choice but to convert excess fructose into fat, putting us at risk of heart disease and diabetes.
So next time you go to sip a glass of juice as the healthy choice, reach for the fruit instead!
Just about everything commercially manufactured from bread, sauces and breakfast cereals to yoghurt and vegetable juices contain sugar. Try to avoid overly processed food where you can in favour of homemade or products with as short an ingredients list as possible.
Fill up on antioxidant-rich vegetables and foods that are high in protein like meat, fish, beans, pulses and eggs to keep you feeling full for longer. Try swapping store-bought tomato sauce for this veggie packed homemade tomato sauce.
One tablespoon of tomato sauce, BBQ sauce, thousand island salad dressing or a honey and soy marinade can contain up to one teaspoon of sugar per tablespoon.
Considering that most people consume far more than one tablespoon per meal, it adds up fairly quickly.
The important message is that sugar is still a part of our lives and something to enjoy in moderation. Understand sugar, try to cut down and see it for what it is – a yummy option to be eaten in small quantities when the occasion calls for it.
Make your own sweet snacks using refined sugar alternatives like raw honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup as they are more nutritious than refined sugar (although they do contain similar amounts of sugar – hence the need for moderation!).
Words by Mandy Sacher, paediatric nutritionist, author & founder of Wholesome Child
To learn more about Mandy Sacher please visit the Wholesome Child website. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes, and you can connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.