Cakes, biscuits, pastries, sweets, chocolate… Who doesn’t love them all? They’re our go to treats when we’re feeling stressed, upset, celebratory, tearful - basically, any emotion, good or bad. And what do they all have in common? Yep, sugar.
Add in refined white carbs (such as white pasta and bread), the teaspoon of the white stuff that we might add to our cuppa, the odd fizzy drink and a juice made from multiple fruits, and we could very well be consuming a fair amount of sugar.
In this article
Delicious. But as we all know, too much sugar is bad for us.
Recently, we wrote about sugar and how eating it might affect your skin. We covered everything from what sugar is, how carbs are broken down into sugars once we’ve eaten them and the levels of sugar to be mindful of in fruit.
We also discovered that sugar is an inflammatory food that raises insulin levels in the blood that in turn raises levels of inflammation that can then accelerate the skin ageing process if it’s allowed to build up to chronic levels. (If we eat a high sugar diet, then we can suffer the effects of chronic inflammation.)
Not wishing to be killjoys, or worse, judgy, reducing our sugar intake is probably something that some of us could benefit from.
We might not even realise that we’re consuming more than the recommended maximum of 30g of free sugars per day. This equates to around seven sugar cubes according to the NHS, so it’s little wonder it can be confusing knowing how much we’re eating. Aside from perhaps a tea room in the middle of nowhere, when was the last time you even saw a sugar cube, let alone plopped one into your Earl Grey? (The 30g is a recommended limit, not a target.)
So, we could weigh out our sugar, become obsessed with food labelling and think about sugar cubes all the time. Or, we could become more aware of sugars (including hidden sugars) in our foods, and know how to reduce our intake so that we’re consciously below the 30g recommended limit.
Here’s our top tips for reducing your sugar intake, but first...
The Health Benefits of Reducing Our Sugar Intake
As we’ve previously mentioned, sugar is an inflammatory food that can have a negative impact on our skin. But there’s more than that.
Eating a high sugar diet puts us at more risk of becoming overweight or obese. It can also mean that we have a higher probability of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and fatty liver disease. All of which are also incidentally linked with chronic inflammation.
Eating lots of sugar also of course means that we’ll probably also develop tooth decay, and we all know what that means - a trip, or several trips, to the dentist. And, no offence to you dentists out there, but we’d really rather not…
So, in order to give us a better chance of avoiding these health conditions, and the dentist, we can take steps to reduce our sugar content. But where is all this sugar that we’re consuming?
What Foods Contain Sugar?
This isn’t a trick question. Obviously, sweet foods, such as cakes, biscuits and chocolate, all contain sugar. But where things do actually get tricky is the hidden sugar.
Free sugar exists in foods such as our favourite cake or chocolate bar. But hidden sugars exist in foods where we wouldn’t really expect them. These foods include certain versions of:
- Breakfast cereals
- Sauces, particularly pasta sauce
- Condiments, particularly tomato ketchup but also sweet chilli sauce
- Salad dressings
- Ready meals and pre prepared foods
Then there’s drinks - the obvious being sugary fizzy drinks, but also pre made smoothies and juices and even some flavored waters, cold coffees and coffees with added syrups and alcohol.
A quick glance at a packaged food label and you might expect ‘sugar’ to be listed if it’s in there. But this is the sneakiness - it’s very rarely listed as simply ‘sugar’. Instead, you might find any one of the following, and they’re all forms of sugar:
- Fruit juice (yep, sneaky!)
- Corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Hydrolysed starch
So, you can see how things really aren’t made easy.
Tips on Reducing Your Sugar Intake
Again, according to the NHS, our sugar intake should total no more than 5% of our daily intake of food and drink. And again, how on earth we work that out is anyone’s guess. So cutting back on sugar in general will help.
Cutting back will vary, depending on how much sugar in general you consume. If you’re drinking a can of sugary, fizzy drink a day, drinking four cups of tea with added sugar and always having dessert, then the chances are, you’ll need to make more changes to your diet in order to cut down on sugar than someone who doesn’t have a sweet tooth at all.
But either way, here’s some tips on how to cut back:
- Reduce your intake slowly, because as with anything a total cold turkey detox won’t last long
- Tea or coffee without sugar will taste weird if that’s what you’re used to, but persevere and before long, sweet tea will taste weird
- Make sure your ‘healthy’ breakfast cereal doesn’t contain added sugar as this is where a lot of us consume sugar without realising it
- Save our list of sneaky sugars above to your phone (or memorise it) and use it when you’re shopping to slowly begin to reduce sugar in those other sneaky foods - most sauces and condiments etc are available without added sugar, it’s just a case of finding them
- Opt for brown, whole grain bread, pasta and rice over the white, refined versions
- Where possible cook using ingredients you know and recognise, rather than eating ready meals and takeaways
- Choose sugar free fizzy drinks and juices and smoothies with no added sugars - beware of the fruit sugars present in these though, even though they’re natural sugars they’re still sugar, so drink these in moderation
- Opt for water and herbal teas to keep you hydrated
- Eat fresh fruit, rather than tinned as it’s often soaked in sugar syrup
- Surprisingly, low fat versions of foods such as yogurts tend to compensate for the lack of flavour by adding heaps of sugar so keep this in mind and choose full fat versions if you’re not watching your fat intake
- Go easy on the ‘healthy’ snack bars that can be sugar laden and opt for fresh fruits and handfuls of nuts instead
- We know it can be hard, but try to keep the sweet treats to special occasions rather than an everyday thing
- Consider natural sweeteners...
Handy Sugar Replacements
There are some sugar alternatives, and they’ve come a long way since the tiny sweetener tablets of yesteryear.
Stevia is a natural plant based sugar alternative that is so sweet that it’s only needed in teeny amounts. It also happens to be virtually calorie free.
Another sweetener commonly found in ‘sugar free’ foods and drinks is xylitol, which is derived from fruits and vegetables. (But beware, it's toxic to dogs, and is often found in doggies fave, peanut butter, so be careful of giving titbits without checking the label first.)
Honey, maple syrup, molasses, agave syrup and rice syrups are all other sugar alternatives. However, they’re still sugary, just a little less so than normal white granulated sugar. So use them with caution rather than free abandon.
The less sugar you eat, the less you’ll eventually crave and your sweet tooth will begin to subside. It’s like fuelling an addiction each time we consume sugar, and gradually making changes is the best way to deal with the cravings.
You’ve got this, and so have we!
This article is not meant to treat or diagnose. Please visit your doctor for advice about any health concerns you may have.