We are told every single day that we consume way too much sugar for our own good. Newspaper headlines shout at us in capital letters, TV ads flash ‘sugar-free’ foods before our eyes, and online blogs condemn those who have a good old candy bar. But what exactly is the problem with a high sugar diet?
Sugar and obesity in adults and children
For one, our modern diets are far removed than those of our ancestors – leading to possible ‘new age’ health issues. If we eat a diet containing too many sugary foods and too many foods made from processed grains (which have been stripped of fibre and nutrients, like the white flour in bread, pasta, biscuits and cakes) we end up with blood sugar imbalance, something our ancestors didn’t have to contend with.
It is now thought that our high sugar and refined carbs diet is a major factor in the growing obesity epidemic. According to estimates from Public Health England, two-thirds of adults and a quarter of children between two and ten years old are overweight or obese (1) (2). In fact, research shows that obese children are more likely to become overweight adults, and that by 2034, 70% of adults are expected to be overweight or obese.
Obesity increases the risk of a number of serious health issues including heart disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, depression, anxiety and more (3) – so this challenge to change our way of eating is one to take seriously.
Function of sugar
We all need sugar in the blood (blood glucose) – it is what fuels our muscles and our brain – but for optimal health, the level should be within a certain narrow range at all times. By keeping our blood sugar in check, we can enjoy better levels of energy, improved mental clarity, a healthier microbiome and better control of our weight as well as avoiding constant sugar cravings.
To keep blood sugar within range, current advice says that children aged eleven or over as well as adults should consume no more than seven teaspoons of added sugar a day – this equates to approximately 30g – not much when you consider a single can of Coca-Cola contains 39g. Younger children should consume much less.
Yet figures published in 2013 reveal that the average adult in the UK has a daily sugar intake of 15 teaspoons (approx. 60g), and the average 11 to 18 year old consumes 18 teaspoons per day (approx. 70g).
Frankly, it is easy to take in too much sugar when you look at some of the popular food and drink choices available at most supermarkets and stores. For example, a Pad Thai ready meal can contain as much as 9.5 tsps sugar – 37g; a bowl of Branflakes has 3 tsps sugar – 12g; and a 500ml Ginger Beer contains 20 tsps sugar – 80g.
What is sugar used for in the body?
When we take in too much sugar it is swiftly dealt with by insulin – the storage hormone. Insulin is responsible for getting sugar into the cells of the body to provide them with energy. Insulin sends excess sugar to be converted into fat and cholesterol for storage, and the fat tends to be stored around the middle – the area where no one wants it!
High blood sugar levels result in a surge of insulin, this hormone acts quickly to bring sugar levels crashing down – resulting in all sorts of symptoms that may be all too familiar, like irritability, cravings, dizziness, even panic attacks and migraines.
Problems arise if insulin is constantly being released in surges – day in and day out. The cells of the liver and musculoskeletal system can eventually get tired of responding to insulin and start to react to it less effectively – this is called insulin resistance – the sugar, unable to enter the cells, is then free to cause all sorts of problems.
The most obvious sign of insulin resistance is weight gain, mostly around the middle. Excess sugar remaining in the blood has the effect of ‘caramelising’ everything in its path – there is a close link between insulin resistance and cardiovascular problems as arteries become hardened and less efficient. Insulin resistance is a step towards Type 2 Diabetes (no longer called Adult Onset Diabetes as so many of our children are developing it!).
Best ways to wean yourself off of sugar
There are simple, practical tips to help you wean off of sugar. A good place to start is to remember a few key things when it comes to your meals in order to keep things in check, avoid weight gain and help keep you as healthy and happy as possible:
• Eat protein with every meal
• Minimise foods with added sugar
• Limit starchy carbs
• Make sure you eat plenty of vegetables
• Include essential fats in your diet
1. Go for healthy sugar alternatives
Instead of adding sugar to cereal, yoghurt or porridge, add fresh fruit like berries, coconut flakes, nuts.
2. Use 'sweet' spices
Enhance foods with spices instead of sugar, like ginger, cinnamon or nutmeg, to add a sweetened flavour.
3. Read labels
Compare the sugar content of different foods and choose the lower of the two if you're going for a ready meal.
4. Swap your sauces
Try to choose sugar-free alternatives to sauces – swap ketchup for mustard and hummus for mayonnaise for example. Salad dressing is also a source of hidden sugar. Try the classic combination of a good virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon instead of store-bought dressings.
5. Snack smart
Keep non-sugar alternatives handy in your bag or at your desk for when a craving strikes – plain nuts like cashews or almonds are naturally sweet as well as nutritious. Oatcakes are another good choice as they come prepackaged in small portions and you can spread a yummy nut butter to fill you up.
Switching to a healthier sugar balancing diet is a must if you are trying to improve your health. By making a few changes you will quickly notice the difference in terms of energy levels and you should also see a positive result in terms of weight loss and vitality.