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Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

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.

Keep occupied

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”.

Gum

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.

Try chromium

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.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29587886
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24493081
  4. https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2017/05/15/sugar-and-cancer-what-you-need-to-know/
  5. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/obesity/obesity-fact-sheet
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17118491
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16184071
Are you and your daughters lacking iron in your diet?

Are you and your daughters lacking iron in your diet?

Are you and your daughters lacking iron in your diet (download as a PDF are-you-lacking-iron-in-your-diet)

 23% of Uk women have very low intakes of iron in their diet (1)

46% of UK teenage girls have very low intakes of iron in their diet (1)

Iron intake in the UK

Food surveys show that most healthy adults get enough of the vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health but there are still gaps, most of which appear to affect women, especially teenage girls.  A lack of iron appears to be common in a significant number of females in the UK with 23% of adult women and 46% of teenage girls having been shown to have very low intakes. 

 

What is the role of iron?

Iron is a vital component of haemoglobin, which is a protein found in red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body.  This mineral is essential for healthy red blood cell production.  Iron is also involved in the immunes system, energy production, DNA synthesis and muscle function.

 

Iron deficiency

 Diagnosed nutrient deficiencies are not that common in our well nourished population and whilst low intakes may not result in deficiency they may still impact on your health and increase the risk of deficiency if not addressed.  Globally, low iron is the most common nutrient insufficiency and has a huge impact on the health of children as it has a key role to play in normal growth and development.  In this same groups of women, around 5% of women have iron intakes low enough to be classified as being deficient, which is a condition called anaemia.

 

Symptoms of iron deficiency

The symptoms of iron deficiency are listed below and if you think you may be at risk then the first course of action is to visit your GP who can run a blood test to assess your status.  If your results show a low level of iron, then you will be advised to take iron supplements such as Healthspan Iron Care (£6.95 for 120 tablets) as well as being given advise about the foods you should be including more of in your diet (listed below).

  • Unusual weakness and fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Pale complexion
  • Brittle nails
  • Muscle soreness
  • Reccurent infections
  • Always feeling cold
  • Breathlessness

 

Iron requirements for women

 Women have a higher requirement for iron, with a daily recommended intake of 14.8mg per day.  This is mostly down to the effects of their monthly cycle.  Pregnant women have a higher requirement for iron across their pregnancy and more so during the third trimester due to the baby’s growth demands.

 

Factors affecting iron status

Like any other nutrient, low intakes of iron can be the result of many different factors including dieting, illness (resulting in a lack of food intake) or following diets that exclude food groups such as vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free.  Other factors can impact on the body’s requirement for iron such as regular intensive exercise and can be a particular concern for elite or recreational female athletes.

 

Effect of medication and supplements

The prolonged use of certain medications, especially non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) that are used to treat inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, can also lead to iron loss through bleeding in the gut.  Whilst supplements such as a basic multivitamin and mineral can be a good way to ‘top-up’, they should be used sensibly as there are no added benefits to taking more than your body needs.  Excessive supplement use, especially individual nutrients and high strength products can impact on the absorption of iron, particularly calcium and zinc, which reduces the uptake of copper that is required for iron absorption.

 

Good food sources of iron

Maintaining a diet that is made up of nourishing foods as opposed to those that are highly processed is the best approach.  Red meat is the first food that people associate with iron and other animal sources include eggs, liver and mussels.  People that follow plant-based diets can glean iron from foods such as beans, pulses, dark green vegetables, oats, quinoa, tofu and nuts (meat eaters should also include plenty of these foods in their diet).  Other surprisingly good sources of iron that can be added to many dishes are dried herbs and spices that are highly concentrated in this mineral.  Fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and plant-milks are also another useful way to boost the amount of iron in your diet.  White flour is also fortified with iron in the UK, which is useful for fussy teenagers that refuse to eat wholegrain foods such as bread and pasta.

 

Foods high in iron (content given in grams per serving taken from McCance and Widdowson)

  • Grilled fillet steak — (2.3mg)
  • Fried calf liver (12.2mg)
  • Black strap molasses (4.7mg)
  • Mussels (6.8mg)
  • Kale (1.7mg)
  • Dried figs (4.2mg)
  • Soya beans (2.3mg)
  • Cooked red lentils (2.4mg)
  • Oats (4.72mg)
  • Cooked Qunioa (1.5mg)
  • Tofu (1.1mg)
  • Eggs (1.9mg)
  • Brazil nuts (2.5mg)
  • Canned Chick peas (1.0mg)
  • Canned Red kidney beans (1.5mg)
  • Curry powder (two tsp = 6g) (58.3mg)
  • Dried oregano (two tsp = 2g) (44.0mg)
  • Fortified breakfast cereals (bran flakes) (24.3mg)

 

 Increasing your absorption of iron

You can give your body a helping hand to absorb iron by combining your intake of non-meat iron-rich foods with a good source of vitamin C.  You can do this by drinking a small glass of fruit juice with your meal or including plenty of vegetables rich in vitamin C such as red peppers, cauliflower and dark green vegetables. You could also finish your meal with a small bowl of fruit, most of which are high in vitamin C.

Some food and drinks can negatively impact on iron absorption.  You should avoid drinking tea with your meals and leave a little time after you have eaten before you reach for the kettle as the tanins can lessen uptake.  Compounds called phytates found in wholegrain foods (such as bread) and beans (especially soya beans) can also impact on iron absorption, although this is really only a concern for people with particularly low iron stores.

 

How to include iron in your weekly diet

Given their increased risk of deficiency, women should try and include plenty of iron-rich foods in their diet to help boost their intake.  Below are examples of how you can introduce more iron into your diet (iron content given in grams per serving taken from McCance and Widdowson).

 

Breakfast

Scrambled egg (add turmeric) on wholegrain toast (4.6g)

Porridge oats (with soya milk) with chopped apricots and hazelnuts (4.3g)

Bran flakes (with skimmed milk) with sultanas and chopped apple (6.1g)

Oat and berry smoothie (3g)

 

Lunch

Chicken and avocado quinoa salad (9g)

Red lentil and tomato soup with wholegrain bread (7.5g)

Mexican tuna mayo (kidney beans, red peppers and chilli powder) wrap (3.5g)

Smoked salmon and cream cheese on rye bread (3.2g)

 

Dinner

 Beef and green vegetable stir-fry with noodles (9g)

Chicken and squash curry with brown rice (7g)

Black bean chilli with sliced avocado and quinoa (5.5g)

Roasted red peppers stuffed with lentils and feta cheese (7.2g)

 

Snacks

Homemade oat and date bars (2.3g)

Dried fruit and nuts (1.8g)

Yoghurt with nut and oat granola (1.5g)

 

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-diet-and-nutrition-survey-results-from-years-1-to-4-combined-of-the-rolling-programme-for-2008-and-2009-to-2011-and-2012

 

Check out my blog on iron at Healthista 

Download as a PDF are-you-lacking-iron-in-your-diet