How to curb your enthusiasm for sugar

Diabetes

1 April 2021

We all know that fizzy drinks tend to contain a lot of sugar, but are you aware of less obvious foods and drinks that contain the sweet stuff? We take a look at the impact of sugar in our diet and suggest ways to decrease the amount we consume.

Research has consistently shown that an excessive dietary intake of sugar is linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, gum disease and other chronic conditions.[1]

Concerns about our national sweet tooth reached such a level that the UK Government introduced a sugar levy on the soft drinks industry in 2016, aimed at reducing the consumption of sugar, as well as encouraging reformulation of soft drinks to remove sugar.[2]

How much sugar is in our diet?

While it’s generally well known that we should be mindful of our sugar intake, sugar is quite a confusing topic, so let’s go back to basics. Sugar is a carbohydrate, which is the body's primary source of energy and can be found in many different foods. When we eat and digest carbohydrates they are broken down into the simplest form of sugar, glucose, which is necessary for our bodies to sustain daily life.[3]

Naturally occurring sugars can be found in fruits and dairy products. Confusion tends to arise when it comes to the topic of free sugars. Free sugar is the name given to any sugar that is added to a food or drink, or the sugar that is in honey, syrups and fruit juices. They are sugars that are not enclosed within the cells of the foods we eat, hence the term 'free'. These are the types of sugar that can increase our risk of suffering from multiple health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heat disease. The sugars that are naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables and milk do not have the same effect, and they have the additional benefit of being packaged alongside additional nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre![4] 

So how much sugar should I be eating?

The maximum daily intake for total sugars is 90g per day, and for free sugars the maximum is 30g. The average UK adult is consuming about double this amount, and most of this comes from soft drinks, chocolate, cakes and biscuits. A standard size chocolate bar contains around 20g of free sugar, a glass of fruit juice contains 15g of free sugar and a 330ml can of soft drink contains anything from 20-35g of free sugar.

When looking for sugar content on packaging be aware that this is referred to as total sugars, and contains both free sugars and the naturally occurring kind, which makes it difficult to tell how much free sugar you are consuming. An easy way to tell if the item of food is high in free sugars would be to look at the ingredients list, and if fruit juice concentrate, syrups, honey, sugar or glucose appear in the top three ingredients then the food item will be high in free sugars.

How can you help reduce your sugar intake?

Small lifestyle changes can help you to cut excess sugar from your diet. 

  • Don’t take sugar in your tea: try reducing the amount of sugar in your tea and coffee gradually until you adjust to the taste.
  • Cook from scratch when you can: this means you know how much sugar is going into your food.
  • Swap sugary snacks: fill the biscuit gap with oatcakes or rice cakes.
  • Drink more water: dehydration can make us feel hungry and more likely to reach for a sugar boost, so make sure you drink enough.
  • Eat fruit whole: Eating fruit instead of drinking it is more satisfying than fruit juice.
  • Check nutrition labels: To help you pick the foods with less added sugar.
  • Choose wholegrain cereals: Instead of those coated with sugar or honey.

Finally, take a look at our infographic below to see how some of our favourite breakfast choices stack up when it comes to their sugar content. You might be surprised!

 sugar info-graphic

References

[1] Flieh et al. (2020) Nutrients, 12(12):3747. Retrieved here: www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/12/3747/htm. (Accessed 1 April 2021)

[2] Pell et al. (2021) BMJ, 372:N254. Retrieved here: www.bmj.com/content/bmj/372/bmj.n254.full.pdf. (Accessed 1 April 2021)

[3] British Heart Foundation (2021). What are free sugars? Retrieved here: www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/sugar-salt-and-fat/free-sugars. (Accessed 1 April 2021)

[4] Macdonald, I. A. (2020) Proc Nutr Soc, 79(1):56-60. Retrieved here: www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society/article/optimal-diet-and-lifestyle-strategies-for-the-management-of-cardiometabolic-risk/0EF3A0C17AAB5AC8D38011EFA86157D3. (Accessed 1 April 2021)

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