Most of us are aware that sugar is bad for our health. But there are still quite a few myths and misinformation which persist, as well as a lack of clear guidance for those looking to reduce their intake.
How much sugar is healthy?
First off, how much sugar should we be consuming? The recommended daily amount used on labelling across the UK and EU is 90 grams for women and 120 grams for men, which equates to around 22 or 27 teaspoons. However, in the US, largely due to the power of food lobbyists, there is no guidance issued whatsoever. Where you see the percentage of your daily intake indicated for things like fat and protein, there is simply a blank space next to sugar! And it’s not a question of a lack of information about how sugar effects our health – the science is pretty clear on this. If anything, this should be taken as a clear indication that the food industry is trying to hide something, namely that many products contain too much sugar and that consuming them in anything above very small quantities is likely to take us far beyond what is healthy.
Whilst the UK and EU does at least have guidelines, a study issued by the World Health Organisation in 2014 argued that 90 grams of sugar per day is too high. They recommended that this be reduced to at least 50 grams, and that in an ideal world people should aim for 25 grams – just 6 teaspoons – to reap maximum benefits. The upshot of this is that when consulting food labels we should bear in mind that the recommendation being used is actually far above what is good for us. So when you see a “red traffic light” for sugar this means you really should stay away – it’s bad even according to a highly inflated guideline! In general, anything containing less than 5 grams of sugar per 100g can be considered low. Anything approaching 15 grams and beyond is a high level of sugar. The average daily sugar consumption in the UK stands at around 100 grams, so it’s clear we have a long way to go.
Why is sugar bad for our health?
The dangers of sugars are pretty well known, particularly in terms of raised blood sugar levels, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Sugar provides a short-term energy boost, sometimes accompanied by feelings of mild euphoria. But within the next couple of hours this is followed by a blood sugar crash characterised by lethargy, mental fog, low mood, irritability and further sugar cravings, which can initiate a downward spiral. When our blood sugar levels drop, our body effectively goes into panic mode, searching for a quick fix in the form of more sugar.
Of course, beyond the daily blood-sugar rollercoaster, there are longer-term health implications as well. Excessive consumption translates into inflammation, weight gain, tooth decay, increased triglyceride levels, and is thought to trigger a whole range of auto-immune diseases. Sugar can also negatively affect the digestive system. Many of us have an excess of “bad” bacteria in our stomachs which cause bloating, wind, fatigue and episodes of constipation and diarrhoea. These pathogens are known to feed – and multiply themselves – on sugar.
How can you reduce your sugar intake?
There are two simple, yet important things to remember about sugar. First, all artificial or processed sugar is created equal. All sugar is essentially the same – brown sugar, honey or maple syrup is no better than the refined white stuff. Although high-quality syrup and honey may contain the odd mineral, such as copper, that can provide a slight benefit, the effect on blood sugar is essentially the same. Processed sugars have been stripped of fibre and basically constitute pure energy and empty calories.
The second thing to bear in mind is the distinction between processed sugar that is added to food and naturally-occurring sugar such as that found in fruit (fructose) or dairy produce (lactose). Although the latter is still essentially the same (sugar is sugar as far as our bodies are concerned), it does have a less damaging effect on blood sugar levels. In the case of fruit, this is because of the high fibre content which slows the release of fructose into the bloodstream.
There is quite a lot of debate about how much one should freely consume or otherwise limit foods with natural sugars. Fruit is a big one, in particular, because conventional wisdom tells us that it is completely healthy and something which we should always be trying to consume more of. But not all fruit is created equal. Some have a much bigger impact on blood sugar levels than others. Bananas, grapes, oranges, cherries, mangoes and pineapples all contain more than 15 grams of sugar per serving. Low sugar fruits are pretty much limited to berries along with grapefruit and papaya, whilst everything else falls somewhere in the middle. Fruit does, of course, provide a whole host of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which make it worth consuming in spite of the sugar. So most nutritionists will encourage fruit consumption, but advise placing a limit at three portions per day, opting for low-sugar fruits, and on balance encourage people to favour vegetables, especially non-starchy ones, instead.
By far the best way to drastically and rapidly reduce your sugar content is simply to cut out processed foods and cook things from fresh. This may be easier said than done, but it happens to solve a lot of other issues as well, ranging from salt and saturated fat to preservatives, additives, and a range of other nasties. It’s an unfortunate fact that sugar is added to most processed foods. Even savoury items like pasta sauce and soups often contain high amounts. If you don’t want to cut processed foods out entirely, get into the habit of referring to the grams or percentage of sugar on the packaging. You can also consult the ingredients list. But don’t just look for the word “sugar”: anything containing syrup or ending with “ose” (such as glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, and maltose) is indicative of sugar content.
It also pays to be aware of products advertised as “low fat”. These have been stripped of saturated fat, but in order to make them tasty, retain texture and provide added bulk something else has to be added. More often than not this is sugar. With products like low-fat yogurt, in particular, it’s a good idea to check the sugar content.
Finally, it’s important to be mindful not only of the individual foods you’re eating, but also how your meal or snack comes together as a whole. This is an area of nutritional science known as food combination. One of the most important food combination rules is to combine carbohydrates (which convert into glucose) with a source of protein, as this slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. So try, for example, to compliment starchy vegetables with meat or fish. And if you’re snacking on fruit it’s a good idea to combine it with some nuts, yogurt or other protein-source.
Beware of the power of sugar
Now, even if you do all of these things and develop a solid understanding of the detrimental health consequences of sugar, it can sometimes still be really hard to stick with it. The unfortunate fact is that our brains are hardwired to seek out sweet, energy-dense foods because we evolved at a time when these sources were relatively rare and essential to our survival. Today, our environment has changed dramatically – we have too much – but our brain’s chemistry has not caught up (and possibly never will).
Because of sugar’s inherently addictive properties, some find that it’s actually easier to cut it out entirely. Making an exception and consuming a sugary snack or dessert can spark a series of cravings over the following few hours, even lasting for days after.
In my own experience with giving up sources of added sugar, I’ve found that I’ve become increasingly attached to the sugar that does remain in my diet, namely that from natural sources like fruit. As I’ve taken steps to reduce my intake – such as sugar in my tea, dried fruit in my oatmeal, or sugar in homemade cakes – I’ve found that each elimination has been shortly followed by my brain latching onto a new source of sweetness to replace the old.
So the important point is to be aware of how your brain and body are functioning and reacting. Such is the power of sugar that even on a natural diet, it can easily hijack your mind, sometimes without you being fully aware, and even when it comes to something as seemingly benign as a couple of overripe bananas.
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