sugar, you're going down.
Sugar. Sometimes it truly sucks (and we are not just talking lollipops).
While demonising one specific food is a dangerous game, studies categorically show that UK diets contain unhealthily high levels of sugar. It is clear that intervention from national health bodies and food standard agencies is needed to aid a wider change of behaviour, but there are also ways that we, as individuals, can take responsibility over our own sugar intake. An understanding of how sugar works in the body can be a healthy way of taking back control.
When coming up against sugar, we first have to acknowledge that it is inherently tasty and is (for many of us) deemed a ‘treat food’ for affordable moments of indulgence. Added to this, our body may not make it easy to play ball, often encouraging us to tap into the addictive* sweetness for a burst of energy or to build up store for the future. (*a study on rats in 2007 showed sugar utilising the same brain reward pathways as cocaine, depending on your unique biochemistry).
Another one of the (many!) difficulties with sugar is that it has an uncanny ability of sneaking itself into our diet unnoticed or disguising itself within foods that we think are healthy or natural, such as fruit juice or honey. The classic condiment ‘Ketchup’ is an example of one of sugar’s hiding places. Often considered a savoury sauce, you would be excused for assuming that it would not need reviewing for our sugar watch list, but in fact, “a tablespoon-size serving has four grams of sugar, which is more sugar than a typical chocolate chip cookie” according to research. It can be pretty easy to consume more than a teaspoon’s worth of the red stuff in a single sitting. Gulp!
Our food environment has also made sugar more accessible than ever before. Fizzy drinks advertised by cool, sporty humans send us mixed messages and chocolate bars sit strategically next to the check out tills.
So, faced with hidden sugars and mixed signals (fruit good vs. fruit juice bad?), it is any wonder we are all consuming too much.
Despite the lengthy list of difficulties in our fight against sugar, it is becoming more important than ever to review our intake for the sake of our health. There are many reasons for choosing a diet with less sugary foods; this maybe to consciously lose weight or due to an underlying health condition (such as diabetes) which may require a particular diet involving a reduced intake of sugar. Overall, keeping sugar at a low, healthy consumption level is better for the health of us all and will decrease the risk of developing health problems.
Let us first dive in and have a look at the science behind the sweetness. Having a clear understanding of sugar’s different forms and guises will create a solid base to start understanding where it appears in our diet and how we can manage our intake. And while there is a list as long as your arm with tips and tricks for reducing sugar intake, we have assembled a collection of practical tips for cutting down.
So, sugar. There are two defined types; Monosaccharides (simple sugars) and Disaccharides (complex sugars).
Monosaccharides are the simplest form of sugar and the most basic unit of carbohydrates. Glucose and fructose are two of the main examples of Monosaccharides. Glucose occurs naturally and can be found within plants and fruit. In our bodies glucose can be burned or stored as energy. Fructose is almost identical to glucose and is essentially fruit sugar (because it is naturally found within fruits).
Disaccharides are complex sugars (most commonly known as free sugars – and if you are looking to get technical about it, it is a molecule formed by two Monosaccharides, our simple sugar colleagues). Common examples of disaccharides are sucrose and lactose. Sucrose is commonly known as table sugar and is very common within our diets. Lactose is milk sugar and is found within the milk of all mammals.
inside our bodies when we consume sugar
When we digest sugar, enzymes within our small intestine break it down into glucose. Glucose is then released into our bloodstreams and transported to tissue cells in our muscles and organs and converted into energy. If you consume more sugar than your body needs, then this will be converted and stored as fat. Excessive consumption of sugar can have a negative effect and could lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
It may be worth us mentioning that elusive figure of ‘moderation’ here. While research by the NHS has concluded that those living in the UK really do eat too much sugar, it is important to consider that sugar is an important component within our diets as it provides us with energy and should be part of a balanced diet. Therefore, understanding our daily recommended amount will prevent us from exceeding our sugar intake.
so how much sugar can we eat?
The government recommends added sugars ‘should not make up 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day’. On the NHS website this translates into the following:
Adults should not have more than 30g of free sugars a day (equivalent to 7 sugar cubes) *you might find it interesting to know that adults in the UK are currently eating 700g per week!
Children aged 7–10 should not have more than 24g of free sugars a day (equivalent to 6 sugar cubes)
Children aged 4–6 should not have more than 19g of free sugars a day (equivalent to 5 sugar cubes)
There are no guidelines for children under the age of 4 but it is recommended they avoid food and drinks with added sugars.
tips to reduce sugar intake
Look out for the word ‘syrup’ on ingredient lists as this is likely to have an intense and highly concentrated sugar base. There are over 56 different names for added sugar including high fructose corn syrup, dried cane syrup, molasses, agave, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, and sucrose, so check for these on food labels where you can.
Keep a watchful eye on your intake of artificial sweeteners as these can impact on overall health.
Frappuccino-style drinks at cafés should be an occasional treat and avoid having it as your daily coffee (they are often loaded up with syrup bases and can turn into mini–meals).
Add fruit such as strawberries or bananas to your breakfast to add sweetness, instead of sugar or syrup.
Favour fresh fruit over dried, or keep to small occasional portions of dried fruit. This is because dried fruit intensifies in sweetness around 4-6 times through the drying process.
Beware of cereals and cereal bars, which are often advertised as a snack or start to the day, but they are sugar’s paradise.
Try drinking more water, as it can be easy to confuse hunger with thirst. You may also be able to trick your taste buds with a herbal tea when the sugar cravings hit – chai, mint and cinnamon flavoured teas can sometimes bring that hit you need.
Make food from scratch as much as possible, so you can keep an eye on the amount of sugar being added to your food. If you are short on time, prioritise making your own pasta sauces, condiments and smoothies, which is a good start when managing intake.
Shop on a full stomach to reduce the likelihood of purchasing ‘crave’ items.
There is less need to cut down on sugar from natural food sources such as fruit and vegetables as these are buffered with fibre and water. However, it is good to be aware they are still included within the ‘total sugar figure found in food labels’ (NHS).
If you are interested in finding out more information surrounding sugar and would like further tips to cut down, then you might find the NHS, GULP or Action on Sugar websites useful. Alternatively, you may wish to get in contact with a health professional. We are also here to help, so if you would like to find more about healthy eating and behavioral change, why not see if one our our programmes could support you or get in contact with us.
We are also interested to hear from you about any top tips or life hacks that you found successful when managing sugar. If you would like to share, comment below or mention us on social media.