Let’s admit it, we all love the odd sugary treat, cake, chocolate bar and after the year we have had it’s okay to allow ourselves to have the odd treat. But when is a treat a treat? Do you only have them ‘occasionally’? This is often where the issue lies, when we have something occasionally all the time, otherwise known as ‘occasionally syndrome’. Unfortunately, constant exposure to sugar can have huge consequences on our health.
Here Laurann O’Reilly, a qualified nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Laurann, uncovers the truth about sugar, what and where it is and how to curb those sugar cravings after what may have been an indulgent Christmas holiday for many.
1) Sugar is deceiving
Sugar is hidden in many of our foods, even some of those perceived as ‘healthy’, this can be confusing and often misleading. Can we call this ‘sweet deception’ perhaps?
– Marketing strategies: It’s also important to be aware of the marketing strategies used for high sugar foods such as colours, with many using the colour green to give the illusion of a product being healthy. Another common strategy is the use of positive words or adjectives to stimulate a positive feeling for a product such as ‘happy meal’. Many companies also use role models or what are now referred to as ‘influencers’ to promote products such as football players or models, we must remember that many of these individuals are paid to promote the products and that they may not necessarily consume them. Most importantly we need to be extra conscious of marketing attached to children’s food products which often use cartoon characters to make their products more enticing, many of which are loaded with sugar.
Hidden Sugar and where to find it: Many of us are aware of the obvious sugar sources such as sweets, cakes and chocolate but what about those not so obvious high sugar products.
The first most common place to look for hidden sugars is in our drinks, we can refer to this as ‘liquid sugar’ which is often underestimated, this includes fizzy drinks and alcohol.
Let’s stay with liquids and look at juices and smoothies, which are generally made of blended fruits, and fruits are healthy right? Remember fruits contain a fruit sugar called ‘fructose’ which when eaten as a whole fruit gets slowly absorbed into our blood as our bodies need to breakdown and digest the fibre from the fruit. When we blend the fruit, we break down that fibre resulting in liquid fructose (fruit sugar) which can cause our blood sugars to spike. We must also be careful when using sauces for instance ketchup and mayonnaise as they can also be high in sugar, opt for low sugar versions when possible or season with herbs and spices instead. Another common place to find hidden sugars is in breakfast cereals and cereal bars (both child and adult products), which again are often marketed as healthy.
Tip: Avoid the high sugar fizzy drinks and alcohol, opt for whole fruits or if making smoothies add some oats to increase the fibre content and opt for porridge or low sugar cereals.
2) Highly addictive
Many people are not aware that sugar is a highly addictive substance. Various studies including one carried out by the department of Psychology of Princeton University found that sugar consumption results in behaviours such as “bingeing, withdrawal and cravings” with bingeing being described as a “re-enforcer” or the ‘hook’.
The study described how such behaviours are “related to neurochemical changes in the brain that also occur with addictive drugs”. For example, removal of sugar was observed to have “opiate-like withdrawal, indicated by signs of anxiety and behavioural depression”.
You may be wondering how this is possible? The study also explains how “brain pathways that evolved to respond to natural rewards which are also activated by addictive drugs” and similarly sugar also has an influence on opioid and dopamine (reward) receptors as well neurotransmitters, which are responsible to for sending signals to the brain.
3) The effects of sugar on the body
High sugar foods not only cause our blood sugar levels to spike and crash which results in a vicious cycle of sugar cravings but can also have long term consequences.
– Obesity: We have a huge obesity problem in Ireland with 1 in 5 children classified as being overweight or obese for their age and gender according to the the 2020 Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative Ireland report. Whilst approximately 25% of the adult population are classified as obese and a further 40% as overweight with sugar being a huge contributing factor.
– Type 2 Diabetes: Although some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to type 2 diabetes, many cases result from lifestyle and excess weight which can result in insulin resistance.
– Cardiovascular Disease: The Centre for Disease Control (CDC), describe how high blood sugar over time can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart.
4) How much sugar is recommended
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend that we should consume a maximum of 10% of our total energy intake from sugar or even as low as 5% per day if possible. With 5% being the equivalent of approximately 25 grams (around six teaspoons) of sugar per day. For young children, the latest Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommendations for 1-5 year old children is that free sugar (added sugar) should be kept to a minimum which includes honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
5) Interpreting the sugar content
– Other names for sugar: It’s important to be able to recognise sugar on labels as it may come under different names such as glucose, sucrose, maltose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCP) or invert sugar.
– The ingredient list: The higher up on the ingredients list a food is the higher its’ quantity, it’s important to beware of products which have sugar higher up on the list.
– The Nutrition Label: Find Carbohydrates on the nutrition label and then ‘of which sugars’, then note the serving size (a lot of foods are listed per 100g/100ml as standard). Some products will also try to mislead you, for instance a 500ml bottle of coke cola will give you per 250ml when in fact it’s double!
If 1 teaspoon is approximately 5g this can help us visualise a little better, with foods
containing less than 5g/100g being considered ‘low in sugar’ and those containing greater than 15g/100g being ‘high in sugar’
The Sugar Content of Common Foods
500ml bottle of Cola = 53g (10 ½ Teaspoons of sugar)
1 Blueberry Muffin = 33g (6 ½ Teaspoons of sugar)
1 Mars Bar = 30.5g (6 Teaspoons of sugar)
150ml Carton of Orange Juice = 15.8g (3.2 Teaspoons of sugar)
Healthy Food Swaps
Chocolate Bar -> 2 rice cakes/oatcakes/fruit
Fizzy Drink -> Fruit infused water
Cappuccino -> Black americano
Smoothies & Juice -> Whole fruit/dried fruit/nuts
6) How to curb the habit and cravings
– Chromium: Not a lot of people are aware of chromium, its’ use in carbohydrate metabolism and improving insulin sensitivity. For those who have sugar cravings, blood sugar level imbalances, going through periods of stress, or are simply trying to wean off sugar, chromium particularly in its’ organic form is really effective. I recommend the PharmaNord Bio Active Chromium as it’s the only organic chromium in Europe.
– Cinnamon: Cinnamon taken in food or supplement form has been proven to regulate blood glucose levels, with one study recommending consuming 1-3g of cinnamon per day particularly for those with type 2 diabetes. It’s great to have a natural way to control our blood sugar levels.
7) Sugar alternatives
For those of you who want a little sweetness in your lives, there are some healthier ways of doing this through the use of natural sweeteners.
– Stevia: This is originally a South American plant but is now grown worldwide and is now used as a zero calories table top sweetener usually in the form of “stevia leaf extract”. This is a great healthy alternative to sugar.
– Xylitol: Comes from birch bark and corn cobs. It looks like sugar, tastes like sugar but the great part is it doesn’t contain as many calories as sugar and is a natural alternative. It’s possible to get xylitol granulated just like sugar as well as within other products such as chewing gum. In fact, unlike sugar, xylitol has been found to be good for your teeth making it a good substitute for regular white sugar.
– Coconut Sugar: Comes from of the coconut palm. Unlike regular sugar which has no nutrition benefits, coconut sugar contains iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, as well as antioxidants. It also has a lower glycaemic index than sugar (less of a sugar spike), which may be partly due to its inulin content. Inulin is a type of soluble fibre that has been shown to slow digestion, increase fullness, and feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. Although it is a healthier alternative to regular white sugar, it contains the same number of calories per serving as regular sugar and should be consumed in moderation.
Honey: Although honey is approximately 53% fructose, it is completely natural and has been shown to have great health benefits when used in moderation in its’ raw form. In fact, honey has been considered a ‘power food’ being antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, immune boosting, wound healing and soothing in for coughs and sore throats to name a few. The best form is Manuka Honey (of New Zealand) as it has particularly unique healing properties. Manuka honey can be found graded with a UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) stamp, with the higher UMF mark indicating higher purity & quality.
Tip: Why not try a couple of spoons of Manuka Honey, some Apple Cider Vinegar and warm water first thing in the morning to start of your day.
About Laurann: Laurann O’Reilly is qualified and experienced Nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin. She has over 10 years of experience including working community and clinical care, research, personalised nutrition consultations, nutrition education talks and workshops.
For further information see www.nutritionbylaurann.ie or contact Laurann at firstname.lastname@example.org