Sugar has a bittersweet reputation when it comes to health. Sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy. Consuming whole foods that contain natural sugar is okay. Plant foods also have high amounts of fibre, essential minerals, and antioxidants, and dairy foods contain protein and calcium.
Excess sugar in our diet is a cause of much ill health. It can lead to diabetes, being overweight, increases risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and raises a particularly harmful kind of cholesterol. Following on from these conditions, too much sugar may also raise our risk of cancer and dementia. What is more, it can cause chronic inflammation, which puts you at more risk of a serious infection if you are unlucky enough to catch COVID-19. Sugar also causes tooth decay and gum disease, which can necessitate painful and very costly treatment.
It is possible that small amounts of sugar may be OK, but when you become aware that as an adult you shouldn’t go over 7 teaspoons (tsp) in total in a day, you find that it’s easy to exceed this just while having breakfast.
Sugar is ‘hidden’ in so many processed foods and drinks. A can of regular cola has 8 tsp, cloudy lemonade has 10 tsp, a small fruit yoghurt around 4tsp, a glass of fresh fruit juice has 4 tsp and a bowl of tinned soup often has about 3 tsp per portion. Much more sugar than you would expect is found in other foods including bread, sauces and canned vegetables. Breakfast cereals and cereal bars may appear healthy but often have large quantities of sugar.
What are free sugars?
Free sugars are any type of sugars added to food or drinks. This includes honey, syrups, and unsweetened fruit juices. On the other hand, fresh fruits, vegetables and milk don’t count as ‘free sugars’ because of their healthful nutrients. The sugar is integral to these foods.
It may help to refer to the traffic light labels to help you to make healthier choices but be aware! If you look at the bottom chart you will see that for foods, the amber range extends to 22.5g per portion – almost an adult’s full daily allowance and in excess of a child’s daily allowance. This is not helpful. We would advise you to try to stick to foods labelled green.
- Red means this food should only be eaten rarely, if at all, due to high content of sugar.
- Amber means in theory this food is safe to eat, but the range is too great in our view.
- Green means the product has a low sugar content.
It is also important to read the ingredients list and remember the first ingredients listed are the ones in high quantity. Also, when reading nutrition information labels always refer to the ‘per 100g column’ as it can be sometimes confusing when the food manufacturers use traffic lights labels ‘per portion’. Remember that 1tsp = 4g of sugar.
Recommendations below on consumption of free sugar from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition:
|Adults||(max) 30g||(max) 7 tsp|
|Children 4 to 6 years old||(max) 19g||(max) 5 tsp|
|Children 7 to 10 years old||(max) 24g||(max) 6 tsp|
|Infants||As little as possible|
|Per 100g /100 ml||Low (healthier alternative)||Medium (ok most of the time)||High (occasionally)|
|Sugar in food||5g or less||More than 5g – 22.5||More than 22.5g|
|Sugar in drinks||2.5g or less||More than 2.5-11.25g||More than 11.5g|
Starchy foods include flour, bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. A starch is a little like a string of beads where each bead is a glucose molecule. Your digestion will break down these starches and will raise your blood sugar. This will be most marked if you have pre-diabetes or diabetes. Starchy foods may have other benefits, especially if they are wholegrains, providing fibre and B vitamins, whereas sugar has no benefits other than flavour, however people often eat starchy foods in large quantities, so these may have a very significant role in putting up the blood sugar. Reducing portion sizes of starchy carbs can have a big impact on prevention or even reversal of diabetes and helping weight loss. A simple strategy can be simply by cutting back on bread. If you are on medication for diabetes, speak to your doctor or diabetes nurse before making changes to the amount of carbs in your diet, as your dose may need to be altered.
Lead by example
Try not to let your children or younger members of the family see you over-indulging regularly in sugary foods. Toddlers should have minimal sugar, so ideally introduce them to alternative treats other than sweets and chocolates etc. e.g. berries or cherry tomatoes or small packs of raisins. However, try not to be too strict or they may later rebel.
Sugar has been getting a bad reputation over the last few years and we think with good reason. However, there is no one single nutrient that can be held responsible for bad health, every individual needs to look at their whole diet and lifestyle in order to improve their health and wellbeing.
Authors Dr Jackie Rose, an experienced GP who specialises in nutrition, and Eva Lasry, Nutritionist, head up the Nutrition Clinic at Private GP Extra. The service offers sound evidence-based medical and nutritional advice to help people achieve optimum health and wellbeing without using medication. Find out more here https://www.privategpextra.com/nutrition-private-gp-extra/