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We’ve been told for years that sugar is bad for our teeth, and we know a diet high in sugar could lead to weight gain. Now we’re being told that sugar is actually the worst thing to have in your diet – but is this true?
Humans have evolved to love sugar. Early hunter-gatherers learned that sweet berries were good, while sour flavours indicated that something wasn’t yet ripe, and bitter flavours were a warning that something was poisonous.1
Consequently, our brains have learned to think of sugar as a reward – because it provides us with a quick, ‘safe’ source of energy. It’s also why we tend to celebrate with sugar – be it a big cake on a birthday, an ice cream on a hot day, or a cold pint of beer at the end of the working week.
Where’s the problem?
The problem is that the more you have, the more you want. It’s why, as a species, humans are consuming an average 46% more sugar per person every day than they were just 30 years ago.2
Obesity rates in the UK have more than trebled over the same period.3 Coincidence? Maybe. Either way, many people are learning the dangers of an unhealthy diet too late.
Most of our sugar now comes from what’s called ‘free sugars’ – the sugars added to processed foods like ketchup and fizzy drinks. The average adult in the UK consumes about 15 teaspoons of ‘free’ sugar a day, but the World Health Organisation says we should aim to bring this down to about 6 teaspoons a day.2
So it’s not sugar but ‘free’ sugar that’s the issue?
Correct. Free sugars can quickly be turned into glucose in your bloodstream, causing your blood sugar to spike. If you’re feeling lethargic and need a quick hit of energy, they can be helpful – which is why people give out chewy sweets to marathon runners, and why lots of us crave chocolate when we’re feeling down.
Fruits and veggies contain simple sugars too, but there’s other things in these – like fibre – that slow down the process of converting them into glucose.
They’re better for you, but they don’t make you feel as instantly perked up.
Why is a high-sugar diet bad for me?
Your body produces insulin to move the glucose from your body to your bloodstream, but this means you burn through the sugars very quickly. Before long you’ll experience a ‘crash’ where you feel tired and wiped out. And that’s when you crave more.
If you eat and drink a lot of sugar, regularly, over a long period of time, your body might not be able to produce enough insulin to keep up with the amount of sugar you’re consuming, or it begins to resist the insulin your pancreas produces. This is called diabetes.
So we all need to cut back on the sweets, right?
Yes, but it’s not that easy. The way sugar rewards the brain is similar to the way that addictive drugs like nicotine and heroin work, and ‘kicking the habit’ can be just as hard – with withdrawal prompting intense cravings and making you edgy. And free sugar is hiding in all sorts of things.
Lots of people don’t realise they’re addicted to sugar because they’re not sweet-toothed. If you instead crave starchy things like white bread, crisps and potatoes, we’ve got news for you: these all contain simple sugars that the body can rapidly break down into glucose.
It’s also in things like ready-made pasta sauces, coleslaw, pizza and alcohol.
But wait, there’s more
Lots of food manufacturers have cottoned on to the idea that people often prefer to buy ‘low fat’ versions of popular foods. But most people haven’t cottoned onto the fact that, often, the fat in these has been replaced with sugar instead.4
Sugar is also a natural preservative, so sometimes gets added to savoury foods to extend their shelf-life – with extra salt added to make sure it doesn’t taste too sweet. Double trouble!
Get into the habit of checking labels and look for the bit marked ‘Carbohydrates (of which sugars)’. Anything with more than 22.5% sugar is high; only things under 5% can be described as ‘low sugar’.
Right. No more sugar - I’m switching to honey.
Hold your horses. Some natural sugars count as ‘free’ sugar too, because they’re not bonded with fibre or proteins that slow down the conversion to glucose. Honey, maple syrup and agave nectar are all made of the same, simple sugars that are in granulated sugar you use in baking or put in your morning coffee. Swapping one for the other won’t change anything, unfortunately.
If you think there’s too much sugar in your diet, a dietary consultation could help you identify places where you can make easy changes.
Is there any good news?
A sugar alternative called stevia could be the future. It’s a natural, plant-derived sweetener that is virtually calorie-free, has no impact on blood sugar and doesn’t cause tooth decay.2 It can also be used in baking.
It’s costly compared to sugar, though. Food manufacturers could be reluctant to switch to stevia because of commercial considerations in spite of the health benefits but you can make the choice in your own cooking.
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