Sugar comes in a variety of forms and if you take a closer look at the ingredients list of many packaged products, you’ll see it’s found its way into many unassuming products.
The Australian Department of Health defines sugar as: “A type of carbohydrate that occurs naturally in foods such as milk and fruit.” This seems fairly straightforward and harmless, so where are the hidden dangers lurking? Introducing ‘added sugar’, ‘intrinsic sugar’ and ‘free sugar’. This is when sugar is added to a food product to provide sweetness or for function reasons. It’s excess of these types of sugar that, says Sarah Gray, a dietitian at Integrated Wellness Clinic in Mooloolaba, can lead to serious, long-term health problems.
“Excessive free sugars in the diet can overwhelm the body’s supply of insulin, which is a hormone that transports sugar out of the bloodstream,” Ms Gray says. “This can lead to chronic inflammation, which is a driver of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and stroke. Free sugar intake also increases the risk of other health problems such as dental decay.
“We’re aware of studies that link high sugar consumption with a short-term decline in memory and concentration, possibly from spikes and drops in blood sugar levels. Especially if the high-sugar foods or beverages are also low in fats, protein and dietary fibre.”
When it comes to sugar intake and nutrition for our children, Ms Gray says it’s important to lead by example. “We need to use age-appropriate language to educate children when talking about limiting intake of free sugars. Don’t use sweet foods (or any food) as a reward, or withholding foods as a punishment as this can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.”
Kirra Morrill, a naturopath at Integrated Wellness Clinic, says when it comes to looking after the health of expecting mums, sugar intake in pregnancy is another red flag to watch out for and monitor.
“Too much consumed sugar can increase the likelihood of gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, pre-term birth and offspring preference for sweet foods. It can also be linked to insulin resistance and lifelong preferences for sweet foods,” Ms Morrill says.
“From a young age, and by the time a child is five, the brain grows to about 90 per cent of that of an adult-sized brain. By that time in their life development stage, early brain development has a lasting impact on a child’s ability to learn and succeed.”
Cyndi O’Meara, an award-winning Coast nutritionist and author of Changing Habits and Lab to Table, adds to the health warnings as she highlights the negative effects of chemical and processing changes in food production is having on our health. “Chronic diseases have become epidemics following the changes in food production in the last century,” Ms O’Meara says.
She explains that people should choose farm fresh where possible, leveraging the value of health through nourishing foods that are grown in nutrient rich soils, and served untainted. “This is so important,” she says. “You simply can’t compare this to foods that are chemically enhanced, heavily processed and laden with synthetic additives and preservatives.
“Reduce your chemical calorie intake, and focus instead on the benefits of real whole foods, that are naturally nutrient rich. Fighting disease through nutrition and not fuelling it,” Ms O’Meara adds.
Some people think that cutting out sugar completely from their diet is the best option, but as Ms Gray says, our bodies need a balanced diet to function at optimal capacity. “An overall healthier diet with reduced free sugar intake, assists with people’s mental and physical wellbeing.
“People need to be better educated on what is the right type of sugar and the consumption quantity amounts if they are going to successfully manage their health.
“While excess free sugars [such as those found in confectionary, soft drinks and juices] are linked with health problems, this is not true of sugars found in whole foods [intrinsic sugars].
“Studies have shown that intrinsic sugars that are found in fruits, vegetables and unsweetened dairy products don’t have a negative impact on health, as they are found with natural fibre, vitamins and antioxidants,” she adds
As a good general guide to work towards, Ms Gray recommends that it’s best to avoid regular consumption of products that have more than 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams, unless it’s an unsweetened dairy product, or sweetened with fresh fruit. “Ingredients are listed from highest to lowest amount on the label. Avoid products with sugar (or an ingredient ending in ‘ose’), in the top three ingredients,” she says.
Putting this into practise is Sarah Baker, 35, who says while she wasn’t always so health aware, over the years she’s learnt what to consume for optimal health.
“Our pantry has plenty of nuts, grains and pulses, spices and other whole products,” she says. “You won’t find anything processed or packaged. I was never big on cooking as a young adult, opting for takeaway meals and easy-to-make pasta dishes and the like. But after being diagnosed with IBS when I was 20, I decided to take a closer look at what I was eating.”
More than a decade on, Ms Baker now consumes a diet of healthy, fresh, homemade meals, which she flavours with herbs, spices and oils rather than processed sauces and manufactured alternatives.
“I still have my treats though, which is usually a glass of wine or champagne that I’d choose any day over processed, sugary cakes, biscuits or the like,” she adds. “It’s a lifestyle change and educating yourself on what’s in packaged products, and knowing where salts and sugars can sneak in.
“Granola, sauces and yoghurts might sound like healthy choices, but can often be sugar traps. We often make our own so we know exactly what we’re eating… and cooking can be an enjoyable task if you’re prepared and actually make the time, which can be a challenge but definitely worth it,” Ms Baker adds.
The start of the year is a good time for people to make healthy changes to their diet, which Ms Gray says will be beneficial in the long run.
“First we need to identify where the sugar is coming from and how often you’re consuming these foods and beverages. Then look at ways to reduce these.
“If someone is consuming soft drink a few times a day they should start by diluting it with soda water at increasing concentrations and reduce the frequency over time until soft drink consumption is only occasional (once every few weeks or less). If you dislike water, then they can add flavour with herbal or fruit teas, mint, sliced fruit or lemon,” Ms Gray advises.
“If it is milk chocolate, start by going from a milk to a dark, then a 70 per cent dark then an 80 per cent dark. You will find your intake goes down! Making these changes gradually helps them to become long-term habits as taste buds adjust to lower levels of sweetness over time.
“When thinking about sugar in our diets, many people tend to research what are some of the healthy alternatives to sugar, especially for cooking.
“The best alternative is fruit, for instance pureed apple or pear, mashed banana, and dates. Sweet potato is good for adding some sweetness to brownies, cakes and truffles. For beverages, or where fruit cannot be used, naturally derived sweeteners, such as stevia, monk fruit and xylitol can also be used in moderation,” Ms Gray explains.
She also highlights that honey, rapadura sugar (less refined cane sugar), maple syrup and coconut sugar are all still classified as free sugar.
Ms Morrill recommends that when it comes to being able to take control of sugar consumption for the whole family, “homemade is best, so you know exactly what’s going into it.”
6 ways to change
- Spend time making your food at home.
- Reduce refined carbohydrates and packaged foods (breakfast cereals, white pasta and cakes) and increase complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potato, basmati brown rice, legumes and quinoa.
- Remember, protein is important to stabilise blood sugar and increase feelings of fullness.
- Incorporate more fibre, which helps to give a feeling of fullness, without overindulging in calorie-rich foods (think chia seeds, flaxseed powder, nuts and lentils, as well as fruit and vegies with the skin on).
- Take realistic steps to reduce your free sugar intake.
- Educate children from a young age on good nutrition and lead by example.
Sugar consumption: a global issue
The World Medical Association (WMA) recently announced a new policy statement, calling on all national governments to reduce the affordability of added-sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages through a tax on sugar.
The WMA recommends that the tax revenue collected should be used for health promotion programs that are aimed at reducing obesity, and non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.
The organisation wants to see a reduction in sugar consumption, compulsory labelling of sugar products by food manufacturers and strict regulation of advertising targeted at children.
WMA president Dr Miguel Jorge says, “We want all governments to restrict the availability of sugar-sweetened beverages and products that are highly concentrated with free sugar from educational and healthcare institutions and replace them with healthier alternatives.”
The WMA also wants all national medical associations to advocate for healthy sustainable food with limited free sugar intake that is less than five per cent of the total energy intake. That is around six teaspoons a day.
Dietitian Sarah Gray says if you are concerned about your sugar intake and want to obtain more information for your family, visit your general practitioner or health provider to discuss your diet and health concerns. Some people may even qualify to have extra support with their doctor by obtaining a chronic disease management plan where you can obtain up to five subsidised visits from a dietitian.
Ms Gray says it’s well worth taking the time to re-evaluate your diet. “Small steps each day to being mindful of how much sugar is consumed, is a step in the right direction to a healthier future for the whole family,” she adds.