Whether you saw the show or not, this will help you understand the health implications that can develop from consuming too much sugar, make informed food choices, and outline some simple changes to reduce your daily sugar intake.
After over-hearing some conversations about the show, and answering questions people had regarding some issues raised throughout the show, it was clear that there is still some confusion regarding what we should be eating and what foods should be avoided.
We are eating too much SUGAR. Consuming too many foods and drinks that are high in sugar can lead to weight gain, which consequently leads to an increased risk of developing more serious health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers, and is also linked to tooth decay. Over recent years, an ‘Irish Sugar Culture’ has developed, where Ireland is placed a worryingly 4th place in the ‘World League’. This equates to an average daily consumption of 24tsp/day or 96 grams of sugar.
Lets put that in context…
The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets recommended guidelines for sugar consumption at 6tsp/day or 24 grams. Ireland is currently consuming FOUR TIMES this amount. At this current rate, it is predicted that Ireland will be crowned ‘The Fattest Country in Europe’ by 2030! A survey conducted by Health Ireland in 2015 found 60% of adults in Ireland are overweight or obese.
Now before everyone jumps on the nearest ‘We Hate Carbs’ bandwagon, lets take a minute to understand carbohydrates a little more…
We need carbohydrates…our brain needs them to power its activities; our muscles need them to fuel your work. However, not all carbohydrates are equal. Some of them are referred to as SIMPLE and well-refined carbohydrates (E.g., sweets, biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks), while others are considered COMPLEX and less processed (E.g., Whole grains and vegetables). It is SIMPLE carbohydrates, when added to foods and drinks are the main concern and cause for increased obesity levels and health problems.
For a slightly more scientific approach to SIMPLE carbohydrates; check out the ‘A bit of Science’ section at the end of this post.
ADDED SUGAR… FREE SUGARS… What does it mean, and is there a different??
There is no difference between the terms ‘free sugars’ and ‘added sugar’. They both refer to all monosaccharides and disaccharides (e.g. sucrose [table sugar], glucose) added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cooks, or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. However, it is important to note that these terms exclude lactose in milk and milk products, as well as those sugars contained in fruit that is whole, or still intact (i.e. not juiced)
Free sugars should account for no more than 5% of your daily energy intake.
**Click here and get a detailed assessment of you dietary status**
Daily consumption of foods high in ‘free sugars’ are linked to a greater risk of tooth decay and obesity. Remember, these figures are a limit, not a target! (The following is based on average population diets)
Sugar that we personally add to our own food, accounts for a small fraction of overall sugar consumed. The majority will come from processed foods and sugary drinks. Therefore, this is where we need to make a conscious effort to be able to identify foods and drinks that are high in sugar, and make smarter, alternative choices. This may not be as simple as it sounds. The problem that I hear most often is that trying to identify sugar on food labels can be very confusing. In order to reduce your ‘free sugar’ consumption, getting into the habit of reading food labels and comparing products is vitally important. However, when sugar is listed in many different forms, and also appearing separately throughout an ingredients list, no wonder it’s a problem.
Familiarise yourself with the following names for sugar to help you indentify foods and drinks that contain high levels of ‘free sugar’.
If one or more of these forms of sugar appears high up on the ingredient list, the product will likely be high in sugar. In addition to checking the ingredient list, you should also check the ‘nutritional information’ panel (the more detailed panel usually location in the back of the packaging), looking specifically for ‘Sugars/of which sugars’ under the ‘Total Carbohydrate’ heading. Usually listed ‘per 100g/ml’ and ‘per serving’.
It is currently difficult to know your exact intake of ‘free sugar’. This is because the food labels do not differentiate between ‘free sugars’ and other sugars like milk sugar (lactose). Additionally, natural sugars found in whole fruit and vegetables are not considered ‘free sugars’ but will be classified as ‘of which sugars’ on the nutritional information label. Fizzy drinks, sweets and confectionary are rich in ‘free sugars’. Therefore, as a general rule…if you limit these foods daily, you will help reduce your ‘free sugar’ intake.
The Main Offenders…Foods to reduce and try to avoid
Sugar, preserves and confectionary
A large majority of ‘free sugar’ comes from table sugar, jams, chocolate and sweets. Do you find yourself reaching for these foods often? A conscious effort must be made to reduce your consumption of these foods.
Instead of a chocolate bar (that can contain the equivalent of around 24g / 6 sugar cubes), why not reach for a banana to satisfy that sweet craving. Or for a smaller step towards your reduced ‘free sugar’ intake, try dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content. Dark chocolate usually contains less sugar than plain or milk chocolate.
Chocolate spread (57.1g of total sugar per 100g)
Plain chocolate (62.6g/100g)
Fruit pastilles (59.3g/100g)
Soft drinks are a major contributor to our daily ‘free sugar’ consumption, which should not be surprising considering most fizzy drinks are basically refined sugar with water and flavouring (one 330ml can contains around 27g / 9 sugar cubes – more than your recommended daily ‘free sugar’ intake).
Fruit juice made from 100% fruit is a drink that may cause most confusion. Even 100% pure unsweetened fruit juice contains high levels on ‘free sugars’ that we must reduce. The reason behind this is because the juicing process releases the sugars contained in the fruit and also removes the fibre. Therefore, the body absorbs the full load of sugar very quickly.
To avoid these sugary drinks try swapping to water and milk. Again for a smaller step, you can choose ‘diet’, ‘sugar free’ or ‘no-added sugar’ options. However, be cautious regarding the amount of artificial sweeteners in these drinks. These sweeteners can still make the body crave a ‘sugar hit’.
Biscuits, buns, cakes
One thing is true, these types of foods are very easy to pick up and graze on throughout the day. They can provide some comfort, but they are often high in sugar and fat (hence why we think they are so tasty). These foods are of course, buns, biscuits, pastries, and other cereal-based foods. Cereal-based foods are cleverly marketed, focusing on the (limited) goodness you gain from eating such a product, e.g. Wholegrain. However, these foods contain a high level of ‘free sugar’.
An average bar weighs 37 grams and contains 12 grams of sugar (32g sugar per 100g) that puts it well into the ‘high sugar’ category.
These foods have no place on the breakfast menu for many reasons. The most obvious being they are full of sugar. Instead, opt for some porridge oats, berries, nuts and natural Greek yogurt, or wholegrain toast with peanut butter, or poached eggs with avocado.
People are often unaware of the sugar content in alcoholic drinks, and forget to include them when calculating their daily intake. A great place to start cutting down on your sugar consumption (and also helping to increase your general health) is reducing your alcohol consumption. Alcohol contains more calories per gram (7kcal/g) than carbohydrates or protein (4 kcal/g).
A 175ml glass of wine (12% ABV) contains around 126 kcal (around the same as some chocolate bars), and don’t forget about that mixer you add to spirits.
Tips on cutting down:
Dairy products (milk, cheese & yogurt) contain protein, calcium and many other beneficial vitamins. The sugar in dairy products is called lactose. We do not need to make a conscious effort to cut down on this type of sugar. However, what you need to look out for are flavoured and low-fat dairy products. These products will contain added ingredients such as; table sugar, fructose, concentrated fruit juice and glucose-fructose syrup.
High amounts of sugar are found in many of our favourite savoury foods (stir-in sauces, tomato ketchup, salad cream, ready meals, marinades & crisps). Our initial reactions may be to think savoury foods will not contain high levels of added sugar. However, some ready meals have been found to contain more sugar than vanilla ice cream. Reduce your sugar intake by making your own sauce, so you know what exactly is in it. If you do buy ready made sauces, or processed foods, get into the habit of checking the labels and ingredient list for the sugar content.
Some strategies to implement to help reduce for sugar intake
When choosing foods and drinks to buy or when preparing them to consume, keep these three simple steps in mind -
SUGAR SWAPS – is there a better alternative?
SMALLER PORTIONS – still enjoy the foods you like, just eat a little less
CUT BACK – what food can I live without?
Try a sugar swap during breakfast – many cereals are high in sugar (and salt). See if your favourite cereal is on the list. If it is, can you make a ‘Sugar Swap’ to help reduce your sugar intake?
Help the transition of your sugar swap by adding some whole fruit or yogurt to your new cereal choice. This will count as one of your ‘5 A DAY’ or add some much needed protein and calcium to your meal.
Why not cut back completely on your sugary cereal intake, and go for wholegrain toast, while also implementing smaller portions of your favourite jam or spread.
Sugary drinks have no nutritional value and have no place in your daily diet – It is important to cut back on any sugary drinks you currently consume. Instead choose water, milk, or if you must, ‘diet’ or ‘sugar free’ drinks.
How much sugar does your favourite drink have?
If you enjoy fruit juice or smoothies, and you find it a helpful way to consume more fruit and vegetables on a daily basis, make a conscious effort to drink smaller portions (around 150ml).
Still craving a fizzy-fix? Why not try sparkling water with lemon or lime.
I hope this helps shed some light on the dangers of consuming too much sugar and I welcome any comments or questions you have on the subject.
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A bit of science
Simple carbohydrates include monosaccharides (Glucose, Fructose & Galactose) and disaccharides (Sucrose, Maltose & Lactose), while complex carbohydrates include oligosaccharides and polysaccharides. The term ‘saccharide’ means an organic compound containing sugar or sugars.
A monosaccharide is made up of a single sugar molecule. When two monosaccharides combine, they form a disaccharide. These are known as simple sugars, or simple carbohydrates, which will be the main focus of this post.
Glucose (blood sugar) – rarely occurs as a monosaccharide in food; it is often found as part of a disaccharide or starch.
Fructose (fruit sugar) – found naturally found in fruits and vegetables.
Galactose – occurs most often as a part of lactose (a disaccharide) in milk.
Sucrose (cane sugar or table sugar) – found naturally in sugar cane, honey and maple sugar, which are processed to make brown, white and powdered sugar.
Maltose (malt sugar) – consists of two glucose molecules. This sugar is made whenever starch breaks down.
Lacose (milk sugar) – formed when glucose bonds with galactose. The only sugar found naturally in animal foods.
Both monosaccharides and disaccharides are collectively regarded as sugars. Sugars can also be divided into added sugars and naturally occurring sugars. Added sugars are not nutritionally or chemically different to sugars occurring naturally in food. The only difference is that they have been refined and therefore separated from their plant sources, such as sugar cane and sugar beets. Foods in which naturally occurring sugar predominate, such as milk, fruits and vegetables; provide not only energy, but also fibre and micronutrients. In contrast, foods with large amounts of added sugars, such as soft/fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits and sweets, often have little nutritional value beyond the calories they contain. For example, 1 tsp of sugar contains 50kcal, but almost no nutrient value other then sugar. A small orange also has about 50kcal, but contains vitamin C, folate, potassium, and some calcium, as well as fibre.
When simple carbohydrates are consumed, they are broken down and absorbed in the small intestine, and the type of sugar influences where the body sends it, and what it will then use it for.
When glucose is absorbed across the wall of the small intestine it can be –
Used directly for energy
Sorted as glycogen in muscles or the liver
Converted to fat
When fructose is absorbed in the small intestine it is transported to the liver. Most fructose is converted into glucose. However, the liver has a capacity of how much energy it can process. Therefore, if high amounts of fructose are consumed, the remainder will be converted into fat. This liver fat can increase your risk of liver cancer, and liver failure.
Monosaccharides are digested and absorbed easily by the body; therefore, arrive in the bloodstream very quickly. When blood glucose levels increase, insulin is released from the pancreas to transport glucose to cells throughout your body. With constant high levels of sugar consumption, the pancreas is put under huge pressure to sustain high insulin production levels. Over time, the pancreas cannot simply cope with this level of demand. Therefore, can no longer produce insulin at sufficient rate, or the body will stop responding to insulin normally, Insulin Resistance, that can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.