Sugar. We all eat it (to a lesser or greater extent). Many people like it. And, when digested, it is an essential part of our diet. And yet it appears to be another vilified food group… What do you actually know about ‘sugar’ and do you need to worry?
What is Sugar
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. This means it doesn’t need much digestion and it’s very easily absorbed into the bloodstream. This makes it a very accessible source of energy for our bodies, by which I mean the delay between eating it and our bodies using it is relatively short.
There is nothing inherently wrong with sugar. For normal healthy humans, it is a useful part of a balanced diet. The issue arises when it is eaten to excess. We used to think the only problem with excess sugar was its effect on our teeth. But extra sugar means extra calories and eating too many calories could lead to obesity, which raises your risk of heart disease and other conditions.
The types of sugar that adults are eating too much of is ‘free sugar’. Free sugar is what we call any sugar added to a food or drink. Or the sugar that is already in honey, syrup and fruit juice. These are free because they’re not inside the cells of the food we eat.
The sugars found in fruit, vegetables and milk don’t seem to have a negative effect on our health, and they come with extra nutrients, such as fibre.
But when fruit is turned into fruit juice, the sugars come out of their cells and become free sugars. The fibre is lost and it’s easier to consume extra sugar without realising. You wouldn’t eat four oranges in a row but you might drink their juice in one glass of orange juice without feeling full.
Why Sugar is used
You might imagine that sugar is purely used to sweeten products, and whilst it is true that the vast majority of people are genetically predisposed to like sweet flavours, there is a bit more to it. Sugar also acts as a preservative. Further it also helps to create particular textures in cakes, biscuits and chocolate. You might therefore be surprised to learn that you can find sugar added to savoury processed foods too.
The Problems With Sugar
Historically a diet high in sugar was mostly of concern for leading to tooth decay, but increasingly in more recent years an excess of sugar (because of the excess in calories) leads to obesity. In addition a high consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks has been shown to lead to type-2 diabetes. The link between excess sugar consumption and diseases such as heart disease has been much harder to prove. This is because sugar is so widely consumed, but also because such diseases are generally not caused by a single food or nutrient. That is far too simplistic a view of a much more complex landscape. Generally such diseases are the result of hereditary disposition and / or lifestyle factors and choices. It would be fair to say that excess sugar in the diet can be associated with particular lifestyle choices in many instances.
Sugar Consumption Guidelines
The government recommends that free sugars make up no more than 5% of our daily calories. But right now the average UK adult is eating at least twice as much. Most of that comes from soft drinks and fruit juices (people see fruit juice as ‘healthy’ because it came from a fruit and might even bee ‘freshly’ prepared in a juicer at home), sugars that we add to food and drink, including jams and chocolate spread, biscuits, pastries and cakes.
Don’t add sugar to your tea or coffee, and avoid sugary snacks or stick to small portions.
Adults and children aged over 11 should eat no more than around 30g of free sugars a day. A standard chocolate bar equals 25g of free sugar, 150ml of fruit juice equals 12g of free sugar and a 330ml can of cola equals 35g of free sugar.
A Sugar Free Diet
If you have read my blogs for a while you will know that I would strongly suggest that removing any single nutrient from your diet is a generally bad idea. The caveat of course being that you might need to if advised by your Doctor for a specific, diagnosed, medical condition. Rather than trying to eradicate a particular food group, it is generally much more appropriate to understand what a sensible level of consumption is and then reduce your intake down to that level. Particularly with regard to sugar and most peoples preference for sweet tastes, cutting out sugars simply leads to replacing with alternatives that can be equally problematic. At the end of the day these are still sugar, so really little has been achieved.