Addicted to sugar? Learn more about how you can ditch the sweet stuff!
Sugar is the villain in the world of nutrition and most significantly those added to foods, which are referred to as being ‘free’. We all eat too much of it and it’s supposedly more addictive than class A drugs. So, what’s the deal with sugar and how can we start to cut it out of our diet?
This month we’ve been challenged by Cancer Research UK to ditch the white stuff in the name of charity but why is it so bad for our health, how much are we eating and how can we reduce it?
What are free sugars?
Free sugars are considered to be the ‘bad guys’ and have been defined by Public Health England as all added sugars in any form which include (1):
- All sugars naturally present in fruit and vegetable juices, purées and pastes
- All sugars in drinks
- All sweeteners including table sugar, honey, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup
Other sugars found naturally in foods such as whole fruits, cereals and dairy foods (not flavoured milks) are not as damaging to health. Blood glucose levels are less affected by the sugars in these foods as their fibre, fat and protein content slows down its release into the bloodstream. Foods containing these sugars are also much more nutritious and contain many other nutrients which are beneficial to health.
How much free sugar should we be eating?
Sugar is high on the health agenda with both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) urging us to reduce free sugars to just 5% of our daily calorie intake. Guidance from Public Health England is to limit free sugar intake to no more than 30g (6 tsp) per day.
How much free sugar are we eating in the UK?
Findings from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2018) have shown that most of us consume too much free sugar (2). The greatest contributors come from the sweeteners we add to food and drinks, soft drinks and then the usual suspects of confectionary and other sweet treats.
Sugar and heart disease
The relationship between sugar and heart disease has been widely researched and a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a high-sugar diet was associated with a greater risk of dying from the condition. Researchers not only found a strong association between sugar intake and heart disease but that the higher your intake of sugar the greater your risk of disease (3).
It’s not fully clear how sugar and heart disease are related but several indirect pathways have been implicated. The liver converts excess sugar into fat and when overloaded this may increase the likelihood of fatty liver disease, which contributes to diabetes risk (a key factor in the aetiology of heart disease). Other risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure and inflammation have also been associated with diets high in sugar (3)
Sugar and cancer?
Sugar is often talked about with respect to cancer but according to Cancer Research UK, there’s no direct link between the two. Saying that, the two may be indirectly associated with one another, which has more to do with the impact of obesity. An unhealthy diet, which may include an excess of sugar in the diet has the potential to cause weight gain and evidence from research has shown that being overweight or obese can increase the risk of many different types of cancer including breast, bowel, oesophageal and pancreatic (4).
Beyond smoking, obesity is one of the greatest preventable risk factors in the development of cancer. It’s been predicted that by 2035 almost three quarters of the UK population will be overweight or obese, which may cause a further 670,000 new cases of cancer over the next 20 years.
Exactly how being overweight or obese causes cells to become cancerous is not yet fully understood but is thought to be triggered by chemical signals released from excess body fat. We need some fat for the body to function properly, but excess may be harmful as it releases hormones and growth-promoting signals in the body, which encourage inflammation and influence how often our cells divide. These changes in cell division are thought to be one of the most likely reasons why carrying excess fat increases the risk of cancer (5).
How to start cutting free sugars out of your diet
Food surveys have shown we all eat too much of the white stuff and yet most of us find it impossible to cut it out of our diet. Ditching free sugars for good is probably an unrealistic goal for the majority of people, but this current campaign led by Cancer Research UK offers an opportunity to kick-start new eating habits and explore ways to reduce them from your diet.
Top tips to tackling sugar in your diet
Try and make simple changes to your diet that involve cutting down on the amount of free sugars you consume. The tips below can help you to reduce the amount of free sugars in your diet and beat the cravings that act as a key barrier to change.
Understand sugar on the label
Many of the foods typically high in free sugars are obvious to spot, but a significant amount of those we consume are hidden in salad dressings, condiments, breakfast cereals, soups, cook-in-sauces and ready meals.
The front of pack labelling highlights the amount of sugar in a food product so opt for green or amber traffic lights. This labelling can be misleading as it represents all the sugars so also refer to the ingredient list. To identify free sugars, look for anything that ends in ‘ose’ (sucrose, glucose, fructose) as well as any healthier sounding alternatives, such as raw sugar, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup. These are all classed as free sugars.
Switch to sweet snacks lower in free-sugars
To reduce the amount of free sugar you add to food you can opt for dried fruits or homemade compotes. If you’re looking for something sweet to snack on, then try fresh or dried fruits alone or topped onto plain yoghurt. You can also control the amount of sugar you add to homemade fruit breads, which can be topped with nut butters.
Include plenty of protein in your diet
Protein helps to keep you feeling full and can lessen the desire to snack between meals. Structure your meals by teaming proteins with healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds), fibre (wholegrains) and plenty of vegetables. If you need to snack between meals then something protein-based such as boiled eggs, pulse-based dips (hummus) or lean meat proteins are a great option.
Get a little spicy!
Sweet spices such as ground ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon can make a great substitute for sugar. These spices can be added to hot beverages and smoothies or sprinkled over porridge and yoghurt in place of sweeteners such as sugar or honey.
Ditch sugary drinks
Soft drinks are one of the biggest contributors to sugar in the diet and even so-called health drinks can be loaded with sugar in one of its many forms. Try flavouring sparkling water with fruits, vegetables and herbs such as lemons, limes, strawberries, mint, cucumber, rosemary, fresh ginger and basil. Herbal teas are also lovely when brewed, chilled and sweetened with a little honey.
Research shows that the desire for something sweet after you have eaten is more likely to stem from habits formed during childhood as opposed to anything more biological (6). Evenings are the downfall of most people when it comes to snacking, so the first step is to keep sweet treats out of the house. The next step is to find ways to occupy your time such as going out for a walk, doing something around the house or having a nice bath with a good book rather than flopping in front of the TV with a family pack of minstrels. There’s some truth in the saying, “Idle hands make for the devil’s work”.
Research findings are mixed but have shown that chewing gum may help overcome sweet cravings in some people (7). Make sure you opt for sugar-free varieties!
Learn to chill
We’re more likely to seek out sweet treats and comfort foods when under stress. Try to adopt other ways to manage your stress rather than relying on food. Magnesium helps to relax the body and can be found in foods such as nuts, seeds and even a little high-cocoa dark chocolate, which is also rich in the compounds phenylethylamine that acts as mild mood booster.
This mineral has been shown to help manage blood glucose (sugar) as part of something called the glucose tolerance factor (GTF). This factor increases the effectiveness of insulin, which is a hormone that helps to control blood sugar levels by transporting glucose into cells. Chromium also helps the body to process the carbohydrates, fats and proteins in the foods we eat. Whilst not conclusive, research has suggested that chromium supplements may help with cravings (8) and anecdotally, some people find these a useful way to reduce sugar cravings by taking with meals.