Sugar consumption is at an all-time high – global intake is over 170 million tonnes a year! But what does this mean for our health, and how can dietary changes improve our wellbeing?
What is sugar?
“Sugar is a simple type of carbohydrate, so it’s one of the essential constituents of our food,” says Bupa general practitioner Luke Powles. “But there are different types of sugars. The type we’re typically interested in, as far as its impact on health, is what we refer to as ‘free sugars’, which are added to foods.” Bupa specialist dietician Biancu Parau expands, “Free sugars are those used to add flavour, and preserve and extend the shelf life of our food, rather than the natural sugars found in fruit, vegetables or milk.”
These sugars – which you might see referred to as free, refined or added sugars – contain no vitamins, minerals or other nutrients, Bianca says. They’re commonly found in fizzy drinks, sweets, syrups, honey, biscuits and cakes, and are often added to processed foods like ready meals and jars of pre-made sauce.
Unlike complex, slow-release carbohydrates, free sugars release energy quicker, causing the sugar highs and slumps that you’ve no doubt experienced. “Excess sugar contributes to weight gain,” Luke says. “We know that if we’ve got too much energy coming into the body then the body stores that energy as fatty tissue. This can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.” Besides weight-related issues, tooth decay is another health impact. Luke adds, “What many people don’t appreciate is that, as well as dental problems, tooth decay is actually a big source of generalised infection in the body.”
How much is okay?
Bupa experts stress there’s no need to go to the extreme of cutting out sugar entirely. “It’s not that you can’t eat sweet things at all,” Luke says. “We all need enough glucose in our body to function, and sugar is not carcinogenic on its own. It’s all about the quantity.”
However, Bianca adds, “As you wean yourself off sugar, you’ll start to crave it less, so will ultimately eat less. The World Health Organisation recommends reducing free sugars to less than 10 percent of your total energy intake.”
Luke suggests sticking to less than 30 grams a day for adults – this equates to seven or eight sugar cubes. “For kids up to six years old, it’s about 19 grams, or five sugar cubes; and for ages seven to 10, no more than 24 grams.”
To put that in context, the biggest sugar consumer, the United States, gets through a staggering 126 or more grams of sugar per person. India in comparison checks in at just over five grams.
Ways to cut down
Knowing that we’re eating too much sugar is one thing. But how can we realistically go about reducing our family’s daily intake?
Bianca suggests sticking to whole and natural foods, with naturally occurring sugars, and to cook from scratch, avoiding processed foods where possible. “Read labels so you understand what’s in the products you’re buying,” she says. “As you wean your family off added sugar, their taste buds will get used to it. If you’re really struggling, use artificial sweeteners in moderation.
For Luke, a good place to start is with fizzy drinks and sugary juices. “Replace these with sugar free alternatives, low-fat milk or fruit juice diluted with sparkling water. Try to cut out things like jam, syrup and honey. You can reduce the amount gradually or use artificial sweeteners while you’re getting used to it. Or use low-fat spreads that tend to be lower in calories and sugar.”
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This article first appeared in the February/March 2019 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.