Teaspoon of sugar with strawberries on table

If this morning you started off with an extra couple of teaspoons of sugar into your morning cuppa or snuck a few Oreo cookies to your morning protein shake...don’t be alarmed, you are not alone!

Sugar consumption has increased dramatically over time. It's now suggested that sugar is found in about 75% of the foods we eat with it amounting to as much as 15% of UK adults' daily calorie intake ( 1). 200 years ago, we were only consuming around 2 pounds of sugar in a year, but today that figure has risen to an alarming 152 pounds a year- that’s 3 pounds per week! This dramatic shift has reflected the addition of sugar into many food products, but also the availability of sugar-filled products and consumer choices.

Naturally Occurring Sugars vs. Added Sugars

There are two types of sugars in our diets: Naturally occurring sugars and Added sugars.

Naturally occurring sugars

Naturally occurring sugars are found naturally within foods such as fruit, vegetables, honey and milk.

Fructose is a sugar that has its source within fruits, fruit juices, certain vegetables and honey. Fructose is known as ‘fruit sugar’ and chemically it is a simple or hexose sugar, which absorbs directly into your bloodstream when you eat it. Fructose is naturally sweet and its ability to absorb moisture is useful in keeping baked goods from drying out or becoming stale.

Lactose is the natural sugar component within the milk of mammals such as cows, goats and yes humans.

Added Sugars

When we talk about added sugars, these include any sugars or sweeteners that are added to food or beverages during the processing or preparation of them, such as us adding them to our morning coffee or coffees. These added sugars or sweeteners can include natural sugars such as white or brown sugar, honey or caloric sweeteners such as Splenda.

Ultimately, your body processes all sugar in the same way. Natural sugars and added sugars have the same chemical structures. Natural sugars are the sugars that are found naturally in foods; Added sugars are added to food by manufacturers. The difference is that natural sugars occur in fruits and vegetables that contain fibre and healthy nutrients. There isn’t usually a lot of natural sugar present in foods. Even a sweet fruit like an apple has only 19 grams of sugar. It also has 3 grams of fibre as well as vitamins and compounds that may help protect you from cancer and heart disease.

How Much Sugar Should I Be Consuming?

When we look to giving our body the energy it needs, we should look to vegetables, fats and proteins for our sugar intake. According to the NHS, free sugars, or added sugars, should not make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day ( 2 ). The American Heart Association AHA recommends that the daily maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are 150 calories for men, and 100 calories for women ( 3).

Looking at some common everyday go-to snack products, a can of Coke contains 140 calories from sugar, and a regular-sized chocolate bar is giving you around 120 calories!

This means:

  • Adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day, (roughly equivalent to 7 sugar cubes).
  • Children aged 7 to 10 should have no more than 24g of free sugars a day (6 sugar cubes).
  • Children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g of free sugars a day (5 sugar cubes).
  • There's no guideline limit for children under the age of 4, but it's recommended they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it.

How Sugar Affects You

Escaping our exposure to sugar-laden products is not easy today. We are surrounded by food, particularly in the west with food that is readily and cheaply available, and the varieties are plentiful with many of these choices not only produced containing large amounts of fats and sodium, but also containing sugar! Cakes, biscuits, ice-creams and soft drinks are all easy culprits in our increasing exposure to, and consumption of, sugar. Sugar can affect you in the following:

Sugar and the Brain

On an evolutionary basis, our primitive ancestors were hunters and scavengers, and sugary foods were an excellent source of energy, so we have evolved to find sugary food desirable and particularly pleasurable. So, we have an innate brain system that makes us like sweet foods since they’re a great sense of energy and fuel.

We are biologically driven to enjoy sugar. Historically, high energy food and high salt were scarce, so these flavours are desirable to us; we seek them out and enjoy them.

Our brains are not geared to think that we are going to have an endless supply of these foods, so that drives our overconsumption. So, it may not be a sugar addiction, it could be a biological drive built from pleasure.

- Dr Dwayne Mellor (Dietician)

When we consume sugar, our brains are given a big rush of the feel-good chemical called dopamine, which helps explain why we are more likely to crave chocolate or ice cream after a bad day at work or a night out than, say, a piece of broccoli or a carrot stick ( 4).

By consuming sugar we’re getting a good dose of dopamine (the feel-good chemical) which means we’re more inclined to turn to sugary goods to give us that satisfied feeling over natural foods like vegetables. This feel-good response that comes from quick sugar fixes is a hard response to turn away from- it’s one of the reasons that turning to high sugar food sources can become addictive and a hard habit to break.

The Sugar Crash

If you are a regular high sugar user, and then stop, you might start to feel anxious or jittery- this is known as a ‘sugar crash’. A study undertaken in the United States using brain scanning technology showed that sugar caused changes to occur in peoples’ brains, similar to those who were addicted to drugs such as cocaine and alcohol ( 5).

Most people think that eating carbs for energy will fix a sugar crash, but it will only temporarily boost energy. The underlying problem is protein malnutrition, and during a sugar crash, the body is looking for protein sources to balance out blood glucose levels. So make sure to eat some protein otherwise the sugar crashes will continue ( 6 ).

Sugar and Teeth

The impact of high amounts of sugar on our teeth can be dramatic. Sugar consumption is directly connected to tooth decay.

Studies show that a select group of harmful bacteria produce acid in your mouth whenever they encounter and digest sugar. These acids remove minerals from the tooth enamel (the shiny, protective, outer layer of your tooth). This process is called demineralization ( 7).

Saliva helps to constantly reverse this damage in a natural process called remineralization. The minerals in your saliva in addition to fluoride from toothpaste and water, help the enamel repair itself by replacing minerals lost during an “acid attack” which helps strengthen your teeth.

However, the repeated cycle of acid attacks causes mineral loss in the enamel. Over time, this weakens and destroys the enamel, forming a cavity. The cavity is a hole in the tooth caused by tooth decay and it is the result of harmful bacteria digesting the sugar in foods and producing acids.

Sugar and Joints

If you are prone to painful joints, especially if you suffer from conditions such as arthritis, eating large amounts of sugar has been shown to make joint pain worse, due to the inflammation response that high sugar consumption causes in the body. A research study involving sugar-sweetened soda found its consumption increased the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis ( 8 ).

Sugar and Weight

By consuming large amounts of added sugar over time, our natural balance of hormones can be impacted. When these are impacted, the critical functions they assist in the body can be impaired, and also lead to weight gain. When we eat sugar our glucose levels within our bloodstream increase, which triggers the pancreas to release insulin. Having higher levels of insulin causes the body to store more food calories as fat, and impacts a hormone known as leptin. Leptin acts as a natural appetite suppressant in the body. It gives out a command to our brains to tell it that we are full and the time to stop eating is now! By having an imbalanced insulin level and consuming large amounts of sugars, we can put ourselves at risk for a condition known as leptin resistance, where the ‘ stop eating!’ message is no longer heard which can result in weight gain, overeating and potential obesity ( 9).

Sugar and High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, has been shown from research to have a link to consuming too much-added sugar in our diet. Furthermore, high levels of glucose can cause damage to the delicate lining of our blood vessels, making it easier for cholesterol to stick to the walls of the blood vessels. This results in hardening of the blood vessels and an increase in blood pressure as a result ( 10 ).

Sugar and Skin

Before we set out to blame the years catching up on us, or an allergy to new makeup, sugar may be to blame for our skin looking less than happy. Research from the American Academy of Dermatology suggests glycemic control, or the controlling of our glucose levels, plays an important role in our skin health and acne, and insulin resistance can influence the development of acne. The findings showed that those who switched to a low-glycemic diet showed significantly less acne over a period of time ( 4).

Sugar and Sleep

Consuming excessive amounts of added sugar can mess up our sleep patterns. If you are struggling to fall asleep and remain asleep, then sugar might be the culprit! Our sleep cycles are regulated not only by factors such as light and temperature but also by our glycemic control. If you are regularly consuming large amounts of added sugar and struggling to have good quality sleep, sugar may be a factor.

Sugar and Digestion

We shouldn’t be too quick to blame the spice in the curry we had last night for our digestive issues such as cramping and diarrhoea- too much sugar is known to irritate the gut. Diets high in sugar can increase the inflammation in our guts and impact the gut bacteria levels. Those who suffer from gut conditions such as Crohn’s disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome can find that a diet high in sugar can aggravate their conditions due to the high sugar diet leading to more inflammation. If a diet is consistently high in added sugars instead of one which includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains, then constipation can become a problem.

10 Simple Ways to Cut Back on Sugar

  1. Read the label of products and check out the nutritional information. The best way to cut back on sugar is identifying how much sugar is in the foods or drinks we consume, and making the changes from there. Sugars will be listed as carbohydrates (usually including both starches and sugars) and will generally include the phrase “of which sugars” to show how much sugars there per 100ml or 100g of product.
    • High : If the total for sugars is over 22.5g per 100g, then that is considered too high.
    • Low : 5g or less of total sugars per 100g is regarded as low.
    • If the amount of sugars per 100g is between these figures, that's regarded as a medium level.
  2. Instead of sugary fizzy drinks or sugary squash, go for water, or sugar-free, diet or no-added-sugar drinks.
  3. Dilute your fruit juices i.e., 50% fruit juice, 50% water (not Vodka!)
  4. Use natural forms of sweetening such as fruits, vegetables, or honey. You can even replace sugar with spices to enhance the flavouring of dishes.
  5. Low-calorie sweeteners such as stevia are readily available in supermarkets and these can be used in place of standard white or brown sugar in your coffee and tea.
  6. Limit your access to sugar-filled temptations. Head into your pantry and clean it out! It’s amazing how many packets of cookies or snack bars have hidden themselves in there to be easily found at 3 am when you are feeling peckish or bored.
  7. Be careful with sauces and dressings, they can quickly contribute to a high sugar intake. 1 tablespoon serving of ketchup contains about 5 grams of sugar, meaning that ketchup is sitting at about 29% sugar-higher than ice cream!
  8. Look to eat whole foods, such as grains and whole fruits, a shocking 90% of the added sugars in our diets come from ultra-processed foods!
  9. Rather than spreading high-sugar jam, marmalade, syrup, chocolate spread or honey on your toast, try a lower-fat spread, reduced-sugar jam or fruit spread, sliced banana or lower-fat cream cheese instead.
  10. With cereals, choose unsweetened wholegrain breakfast cereals that are not frosted, or coated with chocolate or honey. Also, choose unsweetened cereal and try adding some fruit for sweetness, which will contribute to your 5 A Day. Sliced bananas, dried fruit and berries are all good options.

To Sum Up

There is no denying that consuming large amounts of sugar poses risks to our health and wellbeing and, due to the constant exposure to sugary delights we are met with every day, it can be a hard area to cut back on in our diet. It is important when looking at our health holistically that ‘balance’ is a key component to good nutrition and wellbeing.

Making small changes in the way we approach our food choices can help us not only develop new strategies to help with temptation and overindulgence but learning to understand the impact of high amounts of added sugar on our immediate and long-term health. This can motivate us to make these changes, and help us in the pursuit of being the best and healthiest version of ourselves, by eating right and living well.

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