We’ve all been there. That sexy chocolate bar almost seems to be calling you from the kitchen cupboard and those beautiful buttery biscuits are just begging to be eaten.
You’re not alone. The craving of sugar can be real and can call to some people as loud as a cigarette does to a smoker. The truth is, as a society we eat too much added sugar in our diets as discussed in my last blog.
But why do our bodies feel the need to have this sugar fix, what does too much of the sweet happy dust do to our insides and is a sugar free diet possible?
First, let’s look at what sugar really is. In a nutshell, sugar is a sweet-tasting soluble carbohydrate. There are many derived words given to sugar, the most common being sucrose (table sugar), glucose and fructose (fruit, vegetables) lactose (milk) and maltose (beer). Some sugars are natural and found in foods such as fruit and milk whilst others are added during cooking and processing food.
So why do we need to eat sugar/carbohydrates? Not everybody believes we do, but this is a separate topic and often linked to medical/health issues restricting certain food types. This blog will be focusing on those who eat carbohydrates daily and the effect that this has.
Our bodies need carbohydrates for energy. Our cells metabolise it and rely on it for fuel. To move glucose out of the bloodstream and into our cells to use as energy, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin performs the job of a door key, unlocking fat, liver and muscle cells so glucose can get inside them.
After our body has used all the energy it needs, the leftover glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Now here in lies the problem if we have too much of it. There is limited storage room in these bunkers so what does our clever body do? That’s right, it stores it as fat as there is practically no limit on the amount of fat our body can store.
It is these fat stores that can lead to general weight gain, and over time, obesity. It’s this that can cause complications such as, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and even certain types of cancers.
Of course, expecting everybody to enjoy a completely sugar free diet is unrealistic. However, our government and clever scientists have developed guidelines to help us understand how much sugar is deemed safe. Recently the World Health Organisation recommended that we should limit the sugar we add to our food and drinks to just 6 teaspoons a day with the NHS stating it should be no more than 5% of the energy we consume.
Now, free sugars are removed from their original source and added to food to sweeten it up, and if you’re label conscious, there are over 60 varieties of these, sometimes sneakily disguised (I digress - another blog topic!). But this is where we need to become more sugar smart and make swaps where we are able as there is very little if any, nutritional value in a lot of these food sources.
Sugar found naturally in fruits and certain vegetables are safe and a much better source of energy for the cells of our body. The apple for instance, contains other nutrients, such as fibre, that impacts how our bodies break down the sugar, as it slows digestion to stop a sugar surge into the bloodstream (sugarmovement.com).
My colleagues often ask why a piece of cake sings to our soul from the staff room rather than the bowl of fruit. Well, there is a very scientific reason for this. Foods with added sugar such as sweet treats, fizzy drinks and snacks offer a short sharp burst of energy and create a surge of feel-good brain chemicals (dopamine and serotonin) the same high that is felt from cocaine.
But this is short lived. The high sugar treat hits your bloodstream quickly (as your body doesn’t have to work hard on breaking the nutrients down like it would with a fibre enriched piece of fruit) causing an insulin spike. And what comes after that spike? The dreaded slump! This is where the evidence of regular healthy balanced meals with nutritious snacks sits. This maintains a stable glucose level which helps to stop these sweet cravings and over eating.
So, now we’ve talked about added sugar and how too much is harmful, let’s look at a way in which we, as parents, and in fact, as a society, can cut down and make simple swaps that can benefit us all. The journey to a sugar free diet as possible doesn’t have to be done in one go, so long as you start taking steps to reduce the sugar in you and your children’s diets.
From December 2014, most food packaging carries a colour-coded system that helps to make better food choices that are lower in sugar, salt and fat. Stick with more greens and ambers than reds for a healthier shopping basket.
Here are some simple ways to improve your and your family’s diet by reducing your sugar intake.
Cutting down on certain cereals for breakfast is a great way to begin reducing your children’s sugar intake. Some cereals have nearly 4 sugar cubes in per portion, which means your children could be consuming over half of their daily sugar allowance before school has even started. Shredded whole-wheat cereals or porridge are a great alternative to those bright coloured boxes of cereal that are cleverly targeted at kids with their favourite characters on the front or toys inside. Add pieces of fresh fruit to this and it’s a great nutritional, balanced start to the day. Eggs are also a fantastic breakfast to enjoy as part of a healthy diet. They are packed with protein and contain important sources of vitamins and minerals.
Be wary of cooking sauces that you may have in the back of your cupboard. Sugars are often packed in these as a preservative and can at times make what should be a well-balanced meal, high in sugar. Sauces added as dips which kids love are also very high in added sugar. An average squirt of tomato sauces, for instance, added to the side of your children’s plate, has a higher sugar content than the biscuit you may have denied them before dinner with over 1 ½ teaspoons)!
You don’t have to be a scientist to realise that snacks such as doughnuts and brownies would be high in sugar. But it may be surprising to find out that often those snacks deemed healthier are also packed with added sugar. Some yoghurts, cereal bars, smoothies and dried fruits contain more added sugar than those snacks you would clearly be able to identify as a dextrose devil. Again, I express the importance of reading the label. If sugar, or one of its 60 alternative alias’, is labelled in the top 3 ingredients, it will have a high content. There are many low added sugar yoghurts and jellies on the market and snacks such as fruit with cheese, and hummus with cucumber or carrots are a much healthier alternative.
Everyone knows that fizzy pop has a lot of sugar, right? But, do you realise how much? Let’s look at the facts. One 12-oz can of coke contains over 8 teaspoons of added white sugar! So, are the clear fizzy drinks are healthier? Unfortunately not. One 12-oz can of fruit-flavoured soft drink contains 32 grams of added sugar, which is also a whopping 8 teaspoons. For me, this means, I don’t buy fizzy or high energy sports drinks at all (another blog topic).
This is why the Government introduced the controversial sugar tax on 6th April 2018. The levy is directed at drinks companies in an attempt to crack down on high sugar levels in soft drinks which are often targeted at youngsters.
The sugar tax is applied according to the sugar content of drink products that reach our supermarket shelves with the highest levy imposed on drinks containing more than 8g of sugar per 100ml. The funds that the sugar tax raises will be used to pay for sports equipment in primary schools up and down the country.
Water is by far the greatest hydrant and is the best for our bodies but low sugar cordials with water is an alternative I offer at times when water just won’t cut it. The NHS has offered guidance on the recent minefield of smoothies and fruit juices. Homemade smoothies hold value where the whole fruit is being blended as it contains the whole fruit with the skin and its fibre/nutritional content. Supermarket and juice bar smoothies and fruit juices often come loaded with sugar, so again be label savvy.
There are healthy alternatives out there, but unfortunately, the ones that are often advertised for children, have the most added sugar. Government advice is to restrict the amount of fresh fruit juice and smoothies we consume to just 150ml a day which counts as 1 of your 5 daily portions of fruit and veg.
This is a huge topic to try and condense into a blog and you could, in fact, write a Masters paper on at least 5 of the subjects I have touched on so forgive me if this hasn’t been as in-depth as you would have liked.
The NHS Change for Life is a great website for facts and has simple tips to help reduce your sugar intake and make healthier food and lifestyle choices.
/My next blog will be about the importance of breakfast but in the meantime, happy reading.