The Truth About Sugar

The Truth About Sugar

With the government’s sugar tax now fully in place, the white stuff has never been more in the spotlight. And while we now know sugar is linked to obesity, premature ageing and type 2 diabetes, there are a whole lot of myths that still need dispelling – from ‘healthy’ alternatives to cutting out fruit. We spoke to two top nutritionists to find out the truth…

What are the main types of sugar?

“It’s no wonder people are confused when it comes to sugar – there are so many different types and they won’t always be labelled as ‘sugar’ on an ingredients list. Sugars typically fall into two groups; monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides are one sugar molecule with glucose and fructose falling into this category; glucose is one of the body’s primary energy sources. The other main one is fructose, which is a naturally occurring sugar in fruit, honey and the processed version is high fructose corn syrup. Disaccharides are two sugar molecules such as lactose and sucrose. Sucrose, most commonly found in table sugar, is made up of glucose and fructose. Lactose, containing galactose and glucose, is the sugar found in milk.” – Rebecca Pilkington, nutritional therapist

Why is sugar so addictive?

“In short, our bodies are programmed to like sugar because it’s a fast and easy source of energy. From an evolutionary point of view, this was an advantage when food wasn’t easily available – sugary fruits would be an excellent find. The problem is that our genes haven’t caught up with our modern lifestyles, in which most of us have access to as much sugary food as we want – and don’t have to move much to get it.” – Cassandra Barns, nutritionist

Are some sugars worse than others?

“When it comes to nutrients, there’s a place for every single one in your diet but when it comes to sugar, not all types were created equal. Refined sugar, artificial sweeteners and some oligosaccharides such as maltodextrins, which link to protein and fat in a process called glycation that accelerates skin ageing, are devoid of any nutrition and should be avoided.” – Francesca Cappozzo, nutritionist
“Yes and no. The likes of brown sugar, coconut sugar and maple syrup can contain small amounts of other nutrients and can have a slightly lower glycaemic index (they have a slower effect on our blood sugar) because they are less refined than pure white sugar or glucose. This also applies to some honeys, although probably not the average honey you’ll find in snack foods. In general, however, there is little difference between them – yes, they are pretty much ‘all just sugar’ at the end of the day. So if you’re cutting down on sugar, you need to look out for and avoid all of these types.” – Cassandra Barns

What about fruit?

“The sugar in fruit is fructose and we should definitely be thinking of this consumption in relation to our total sugar intake. Fruit does have other benefits to the body though including antioxidants and is a great source of fibre and vitamins and minerals. Some fruits act as a prebiotic in our gut and therefore feed the good bacteria so we wouldn’t want to eliminate totally, but it needs to be in moderation. You should aim to balance your vegetable and fruit intake – I recommend a ratio of ten vegetables to two pieces of fruit.” – Rebecca Pilkington

“Also bear in mind whether your fruit consumption is the whole fruit or in a smoothie or juice – it’s always better to eat the whole fruit with all its nutrients and fibre, which will reduce its GI content. The fruit with the lowest glycemic index (GI) are cherries, limes, apricots, plums, grapefruits, peaches and nectarines. On the flip side, dried fruits, mangoes and grapes have a much higher fructose content.” – Francesca Cappozzo

Is it possible to eat too many naturally sweet foods?

“Yes and no. I’m always surprised when a client comes to me and says they’ve cut out sugar but still struggle to lose weight – fruit is always the suspect here as they haven’t considered this to be sugar.
While I would never advocate cutting out carbs completely unless you’re trying to manage diabetes or epilepsy via a ketogenic diet, sensible portions and using sugar strategically makes a big difference. For example, after an hour-long run, long bike ride or high intensity training, you’ll need to restore your energy stores (glycogen stores) – which where sweet food comes into play. However, if you aren’t very active then you should cut your sugar intake to a minimum.” – Francesca Cappozzo

Should some people be more mindful of their sugar intake than others?

“Yes. Those who are relatively inactive may need to take more care of their sugar intake, because their bodies are not using that sugar for energy straight away – it can have a more severe impact on their blood sugar and is likely to be stored as fat. However, people who do a lot of exercise can get away with more – nonetheless, our sugar should still come primarily from natural sources such as fruit, as our body also needs more nutrients such as vitamin C and antioxidants. If you are pre-diabetic, diabetic, overweight or obese it also goes without saying you should be mindful of your sugar intake.” – Cassandra Barns

What is the official NHS advice on sugar consumption?

“NHS guidelines state adults should consume no more than 30g of sugar per day. This has been reduced recently and the idea is that no more than 5% of our calories come from sugar. To put this in perspective a can of coke is 39g sugar or a Mars 20g, meaning even without hidden sugars you have hit that target. We expect to see sugar in a Mars bar or can of coke but virtually all processed foods contain sugar, an example being baked beans (6g) or 2 slices white bread (2.6g). The result of this is that many people are consuming about these guidelines.” – Rebecca Pilkington

Is alcohol really high in sugar?

“There are around two cubes of sugar in a 175ml glass of wine, which is roughly a quarter of your daily allowance. So yes, alcohol can be very high in sugar, especially when it comes to cocktails with added syrups.” – Francesca Cappozzo

“It’s also crucial to bear in mind it’s not just the sugar content of the drink that can cause a problem. Alcohol itself can affect the way our body processes sugars from other foods or drinks, which can lead to blood sugar imbalances and, in the long term, can affect our blood sugar control.” – Cassandra Barns

How should you read a label for sugar content?

Sugar often hides under other names such as dextrose, maltose, galactose, and maltodextrin. Processed food can be sneaky and place sugar under different names but typically it always ends in ‘-ose’ so look out for that.  As mentioned, high fructose corn syrup should always be avoided.” – Rebecca Pilkington

“Check the total carbohydrates content, and right underneath it should say ‘*of which sugars’ – that’s the total content of free sugars. Always focus on this part of the label when looking out for sugar content, and make sure that it’s lower than 5g.” – Francesca Cappozzo

What about sweeteners – are these better for you?

“Artificial sweeteners are a definite no-no. While they’re officially considered ‘safe’ food ingredients, the’ve been associated with harmful effects. The worst ones include saccharin, aspartame and acesulphame-K. We don’t know as much about sucralose yet – it may be a better alternative than other artificial sweeteners but I’d still suggest limiting your intake. I consider stevia and xylitol the best sugar substitutes at present; both are natural substances. Xylitol is quite a lot lower in calories than sugar and has a low glycaemic index, and stevia is calorie-free. However, I don’t advise over-relying on any sweeteners or sugar substitutes, natural or not.” – Cassandra Barns

Any tips for cutting back on your sugar intake?

“The best place to start is by switching to more natural sugars, so swapping a chocolate bar for some fruit. If you have strong sugar cravings then it could be a sign of candida, which is a yeast overgrowth and they feed on sugar – taking a probiotic can help. Also make an effort to increase your fibre through vegetables, legumes and nuts and seeds. These will keep you fuller for longer and therefore prevent the sugar cravings kicking in. With fibre it is also important that your water intake is correct to assist this moving through the system. A general rule is 35ml per kilogram of body weight – remember thirst can often disguise itself as hunger so staying hydrate will get you more in tune with your real appetite.” – Rebecca Pilkington

“Try to cut down slowly. For example, gradually reduce the amount of squash you add to your water and sugar in your tea until you can do without them completely and barely notice the difference. The same goes for chocolate – if you love milk chocolate, go gradually darker, starting with 55% cocoa before working your way to 90% cocoa. If you’re craving sugar, a couple of oatcakes with some almond butter is a great snack – it’s packed with fibre, healthy fats and a good-quality almond butter will actually taste a little sweet.” – Francesca Cappozzo

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