Too Much Sugar - Go Magazine Feb 2013

Too Much SugarSugar has become a ubiquitous part of the Australian diet, but are we consuming too much of it? Here, naturopath Jayne Tancred cuts through the media hype so you can make an informed decision.

Sugar has become a controversial in nutrition circles, with some health experts claiming that it is the root of all dietary evil, and others stating that concerns about it are alarmist and overstated.

In one corner, US-based paediatrician and endocrinologist Professor Robert Lustig claims that the amount of added sugar (and in particular fructose) consumed in the typical Western diet is linked to the growing prevalence of chronic health problems such as heart disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Others, including several prominent Australian academics such as Professor Jennie Brand-Miller (who pioneered research into the role of the glycaemic index, GI, in health), have gone on record as saying that there is no need to concerned about fructose intake – assuming it’s consumed in typical quantities, and within the context of a healthy balanced diet.

On one hand, animal research suggests that consuming extremely high levels of fructose may contribute to weight issues (especially abdominal obesity – a risk factor for several chronic diseases) and several other health conditions, including blood sugar problems and high blood pressure. But on the flipside, human research suggests that calories from fructose behave no differently in the body than calories from other types of sugars.

Surprisingly there’s no clinical research to date that confirms whether cutting down on sugar (or eliminating it from your diet entirely) has health benefits.

However, there are many anecdotal reports of people losing weight and feeling fantastic after turning their backs on added sugar, and it’s certainly true that added sugars are far from being the ideal food. They’re often referred to as ‘empty calories’ – a source of energy (calories) that isn’t accompanied by other nutrients.

So, if you’re concerned that you may be consuming too much sugar – or even if you’d just like to find out how you feel without it for a while, maybe it’s time to cut back. (Of course, if you’ve been diagnosed with a blood sugar disorder or any other chronic health problem, please consult your healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your diet).

How much sugar do you consume?

All the little bits of sugar in your diet quickly add up. Just one teaspoonful of sugar added to your tea or coffee three times a day equates to more than 4 kilograms of the stuff over the course of a year.

The numbers become even scarier when you’re talking about really sugary food and drinks. For example, if you drink a sugar-sweetened soft drink per day (each of which may contain around 10 teaspoons of sugar), you’re actually consuming nearly 15 kilograms of sugar per year – just from your fizzy drink habit. And to burn off all those soft drink calories, you’ll need to jog for around 1½ hours per week.

All in all, the latest research suggests that Australians consume an average of around 42 kilograms of cane sugar each per year. Even though that number is lower than it was a few years ago, for many people, it’s more than half their body weight!

Where is the added sugar in your diet?

Added sugars turn up in a surprisingly large variety of foods, so if you’re keen to cut back on your intake, you’ll need to start reading ingredient labels and nutrition panels. Aside from cane sugar itself, keep an eye out for sucrose, glucose, fructose and other words ending in –ose.

In particular, be aware that you’re likely to find added sugars in the following types of food and drinks:

  • Lollies, cakes, biscuits, pastries
  • Soft drinks, energy drinks, bottled iced tea, flavoured water, cordial
  • Milk-based drinks, including flavoured milk, drinking yoghurt and powdered chai latte
  • Alcopops and pre-mixed alcoholic drinks
  • Ice cream, flavoured yoghurt, desserts
  • Jams, fruit spreads and tinned fruit
  • Breakfast cereals (some contain more than 40% sugar) and muesli bars
  • Jams and fruit spreads
  • Syrups (eg. chocolate topping) and sauces (including tomato sauce, simmer sauces and pasta sauces)

Giving up sugar: The do’s and don’ts

  • Start by dropping soft drinks from your menu. They contain so many calories that it’s not uncommon for them to account for literally half the calorie count of a meal they’re consumed with
  • Don’t be tempted to switch from sugar-sweetened soft drink to artificially-sweetened options either, because some research suggests that even diet soft drinks may be associated with an increased likelihood of developing obesity. Water is the best thirst quencher of all and carries no health risks. (Flavour it with some mint leaves or a squeeze of lemon or lime juice if you’d rather something with a bit more taste)
  • If you usually add sugar to your tea or coffee, decrease the amount gradually until you don’t need it any more. Over a few weeks, you’ll make a significant impact on your daily and annual sugar intake
  • Take care not to swap sugary treats for fatty or salty ones. Instead, take the opportunity to raise the overall quality of your diet by swapping your sweet indulgence for an extra piece of fruit
  • But doesn’t fruit contain fructose? Yes, fruit is a natural source of fructose – and so are some vegetables and grains. But that doesn’t mean you should stop eating fruit in the name of reducing your sugar intake. The sugars in fruits and vegetables are an essential part of a balanced diet, and tend to be accompanied by fibre and important vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that have enormous health benefits. When it comes to cutting back on sugar, steer clear of added sugar, and replace it with naturally sweet fruit and vegetables and you’ll be making a wise nutritional decision.
  • Going cold turkey on sugar is rarely sustainable, especially if it makes you feel like you’re being punished, or not joining in at celebrations like birthday parties. Instead of going without sugar altogether, wherever possible aim to replace a store-bought treat with one you’ve made at home from healthy, whole food ingredients. With a bit of experimentation, you’ll find that many of your favourite recipes work just was well with natural sugar alternatives as they do with sugar itself

Sweet alternatives

If want to add sweetness to your tea, coffee or baking, but you don’t want to use sugar, try these options, which you’ll find in your local Go Vita store:

  • Stevia, which is many times sweeter than sugar, but without the calories or the impact on your blood sugar
  • Coconut sugar, which has a lower GI than sugar and can be used in baking as a substitute for brown sugar
  • Xylitol, which is a naturally occurring sweetener with a very low GI, and also has documented benefits for oral and dental health

This article originally featured in Go Magazine Feb 2013 produced by Go Vita

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