These days all we seem to hear is how we should be slashing the amount of sugar in our diets, and while it's easy to get caught up in the hype of the latest 'sugar free' diet - as a dietitian, it worries me that most people are still very confused about sugar: What is sugar? How much sugar is too much? Are there 'good' and 'bad' sugars? And why we should be cutting down on sugar for our health? This blog aims to help demystify sugar, as well as help you make healthier choices without having to quit all of the sweet stuff.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a sweet tasting, simple carbohydrate and is, therefore a source of energy. Most of us think of it as simply the white table sugar found in the sugar bowl (sucrose), but it comes in many guises - so despite the ballyhoo that surrounds 'sugar free' diets, it's impossible to be completely 'sugar free' because sugars are in healthy foods too - yes that's right! There's lactose (in milk and dairy products), glucose and fructose (in fruits, vegetables and honey) and maltose (found in malted drinks).
Is sugar public enemy number one?
Sugar is still top of the health agenda in 2017, and with good reason. As a nation, we are all eating and drinking too much of it! The average British adult is getting through around 60g of added sugar a day - the equivalent of around 15 teaspoons, and teenagers are consuming even more than us older generations (80g or 20 teaspoons for boys and 65g or 16 teaspoons for girls).
How much sugar should we have in our diets?
For the sake of our teeth, waistlines and overall health, Public Health England (PHE) recommends we should be halving the amount of added or newly termed 'free sugars' (sugar that's been added to food by you or a manufacturer, as well as natural sugars you get in honey and fruit juice) we're consuming to no more than 5% of our daily calories - that's around 30g of sugar (or about 7 teaspoons) a day for adults, and less for children depending on their age.
Are there 'good' and bad sugars?
So many magazine articles, celebrities, health bloggers, food manufactures and diet 'experts' will have you hoodwinked that the best way forward when it comes to cutting down or making products healthier, is to switch to 'natural sugars' such as honey, brown sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, agave nectar, molasses. Not so. These 'natural' sugars may have a more wholesome image to traditional sugar (which by the way, also comes from a plant - sugar cane or beet) you sprinkle on your cereal or put in your tea, but no matter what they're called, any sugar found in a syrup or extract counts as a 'free sugar', so you still need to watch your intake to avoid the health pitfalls highlighted above. And they contain the same amount of calories, 4 calories a gram - around 20 calories a teaspoon.
Even the Great British Bake Off portrayed a 'confusing and misinformed' message about sugar with its 'sugar free' cake week. I was quoted in the Daily Mail, highlighting that the contestants cakes were actually full of 'free sugars' - honey, agave and mulberry syrup - (and therefore calories), so would need to be eaten in your diet in moderation, just as you would any biscuit or cake.
How to cut down on sugar?
For me, lifelong healthy eating and living is about taking little decisions along the way that balance pleasure and moderation. Most of us want to enjoy a little sweetness in our lives, so, if you have a sweet tooth but are looking to take steps towards cutting your 'free sugar' intake - without compromising on taste - check out my easy hints and tips below:
5 easy ways to cut down on sugar:
- Use sugar wisely. There's no need to cut sugar out altogether, but try to rely on it less and use it cleverly, like to make nutritious foods more palatable - improve the sweetness of sour fruits, such as gooseberries and rhubarb, or high fibre foods, such as porridge. This will also help recondition your taste buds to natural sweetness.
- Watch the alcoholic drinks. Alcohol provides nearly 10 % of our 'free sugars' intake as adults, so try to cut down by switching to low alcohol drinks, enjoying alcohol free days mid-week, alternating your alcoholic drinks with water and diet soft drinks, and downsizing your wine glass size.
- Swap the sugar you add to your tea and coffee for a low or zero-calorie sweetener. By replacing just one teaspoon of sugar a day with a sugar alternative, you will save around 20 kcals per day. A small step in the right direction, as a daily reduction of this size could help you save around 7300 kcals in a year - enough to potentially lose 2lbs.
- Make water or low fat milk your first and second drink of choice. Opt for sugar-free, no added sugar or diet drinks, if you fancy something sweet, but don't want any of those unwanted liquid calories from sugary drinks.
- Get baking. If baking is a much-loved hobby, or you want to satisfy a sweet craving after dinner, there are also many sugar alternatives you can bake with, and if you make your own you can control the amount of sugar. Granulated sugar alternatives, especially sucralose-derived sweeteners like Splenda, which retains its sweetness under high temperatures can be used - spoon for spoon - in most recipes to replace the sugar. There is some useful guidance on how to make substitutions here: http://www.splenda.co.uk/baking-ideas-tips