For many of us, our western diet is unfortunately high in sugar. But is sugar really an evil substance we should all be avoiding? The answer is not a simple yes or no (of course), and this is because not all sugars are the same.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that is naturally found in all plants (including cane sugar which is refined into the sugar that gets added to your foods). Carbohydrates are a macronutrient that provides your body with energy (the other macronutrients are fats and protein).
How much sugar should you eat?
The World Health Organisation in 2015 recommended a reduction in added sugars to no more than 5 to 10 teaspoons per day, or up to 10% of your total energy intake. However, they also believe that if added sugar was less than 5% of your daily energy intake this would likely have health benefits. For an average adult this equates to about 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day (about 25 grams of sugar).
Added sugar may be found in fruit juices, fruit juice concentrates, cakes, biscuits, lollies, spreads, syrups etc. Any sugar that is added during cooking or food preparation or added to processed foods during manufacturing is considered added sugar.
It is not hard to reach 25g of added sugar in a day. Just look at the following regularly consumed food and drink*:
- One 330ml can of soft drink (approx 25g sugar)
- Three cups of tea or coffee per day each with two teaspoons of sugar (i.e. 6 teaspoons sugar per day)
- 50g of milk chocolate (approx 25g sugar)
- One kitkat (approx 24g sugar)
- Two slices of raisin toast (approx 13g sugar)
- Two Tim Tams (approx 16g sugar)
- One tablespoon of jam (approx 13g sugar)
- Tonic water and other alcohol mixers may contain approx 10g of sugar per standard drink
*All of these figures will vary depending on the brand but you get the idea of how easy it is to exceed added sugar recommendations.
It is important to note that while the World Health Organisation recommends a reduction in your added sugar intake, there really is no need to include any added sugar to your diet at all (especially in children). You can get all the sugar you need from fruit and vegetables and you will feel better for it.
Why do you need to limit your intake of added sugar?
Eating too much added sugar has some obvious repercussions such as weight gain and tooth decay but it can also lead to a variety of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and there is some evidence that it may contribute to cancer risk. Before you notice any significant symptoms however, added sugar may be disrupting your health by causing inflammation, altering your gut microflora balance and disrupting your hormone production and regulation.
Do you need to limit the intake of natural sugars?
If you are following the Australian Dietary Guidelines and eat 2 serves of fruit and 5+ serves of vegetables per day then I would not necessarily recommend you start tracking all the natural sugar you are eating. Plant food has a multitude of health benefits including fibre, vitamins and minerals and phytonutrients, all vital for good health. That is why natural sugar does not have the same reputation as added sugar.
If you are following the above dietary guidelines yet still have issues with your weight, hormonal problems, fertility issues, or any other significant ongoing health condition, it is worth examining your diet in detail. Eating 5 serves of potato every day for example, whilst it is a vegetable, will be providing you with considerable sugar, and therefore won’t serve your health. Likewise, if you’re eating more than a few pieces of fruit per day or consuming fruit-based drinks or smoothies.
Beware of hidden sugar
You probably know that ice cream, lollies, cakes, biscuits and soft drinks all contain lots of added sugar, but be aware of sugar added to other foods during processing. Luckily, our food labels tell you a lot about the ingredients and the sugar added to processed foods so be sure to check the nutrition labels and ingredients lists of anything you buy to check for added sugar.
A simple way to look for hidden sugars is to read the ingredients list. Any ingredient that ends in ‘ose’ such as glucose, sucrose, fructose and maltose are all forms of sugar. Also, any ingredient that ends in ‘ol’ like mannitol or sorbitol are also sugars.
Unfortunately added sugar can also have a variety of names such as rice syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup, honey, molasses, corn syrup and the list goes on. So be sure to read the label and where possible choose foods without added sugars or at least not listed in the first 4 or 5 ingredients.
Some foods and drinks you might be surprised to know have added sugar (of course depending on the brand):
- Muesli and muesli bars
- Bread including rye and wholemeal varieties
- Crackers including brown rice crackers
- Most breakfast cereals
- Canned fruit
- Peanut butter
- Frozen meals, even the ones for weight loss
- Fruit juice
- Condiments such as tomato sauce, soy sauce, salad dressings and mayonnaise
My tips for reducing your added sugar intake
It can be challenging to reduce your sugar intake as it’s highly addictive. But there are some ways to help you limit your intake and improve your health.
Crowd out the sugar with healthy foods
By increasing your vegetable, fruit, nuts, seeds and wholegrain intake you might find you just don’t have the room for any added sugar.
Start with one meal at a time
Focus on a meal you will find easiest to change such as breakfast. You could swap your breakfast cereal for porridge or make your own muesli mix.
Watch what you’re drinking
Swap your usual soft drink with a herbal tea.
Reduce the amount of sugar you have in your tea or coffee. Start by reducing it by a quarter and then keep going until your taste buds adapt (and they will adapt).
Give the cocktails and pre-mixed alcohol drinks a miss, and watch those alcohol mixers such as tonic water.
Give yourself a ‘treat’ day each week
Plan a day a week when you can enjoy a treat or two. This can help to moderate your intake and avoids the ‘all or nothing’ approach which may be difficult to maintain.
Keep a food diary
By writing down what you’re eating you can easily find patterns in your eating behaviour. You can identify when you’re seeking out the sweet treats and then try to avoid repeating unhealthy patterns. You may not even be aware of how much sugar you’re eating until you start to record it.
Get some help
Sometimes it’s not enough to do it all on your own. A naturopath can help you work on your diet and lifestyle, not just your sugar intake, to help you succeed. Plus we have some handy herbs and nutritional supplements to help combat your sugar cravings whilst you’re changing habits.