Sugar has been under fire in the newspapers recently, with health campaigners claiming its effects on our health are similar to tobacco. Among other things, eating too much sugar has been linked with serious age-related diseases including Alzheimer’s, heart disease and some cancers. So are these alarming stories true or can you safely carry on having the sweet treats you enjoy?
Professor Naveed Sattar, an expert in metabolic medicine, believes the risks of sugar have been exaggerated and that there is no evidence that directly suggests that sugar alone causes all of these health problems. “Sugar in itself is not a bad thing, in fact your body’s main fuels are sugar and fat,” he says. However, he warns: “Eating sugar to excess programmes your palate to be very used sweet and fatty tastes, and if you are over-consuming calories and becoming obese then that is a problem.”
Where Professor Sattar and other health experts do agree is that our sugary UK diet is helping fuel the current obesity epidemic. Eating too many sweet foods could make you put on weight, and being overweight increases your risk of life-threatening conditions, such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. This is particularly true if you are 50 or over and have a family history of these conditions.
The recommended limit for sugar is 11 per cent of our daily calorie intake, but figures show that most of us eat more than this. Table sugar, preserves and confectionery provide 27 per cent of the sugar we eat. Perhaps more surprisingly, a whopping 25 per cent of our sugar comes from soft drinks. Another 11 per cent comes from alcoholic drinks, while five per cent comes from manufactured savoury foods, such as sauces, soups and pickles.
According to government figures, the biggest single source of sugar for people aged 65 years and over is cereals, buns, cakes, pastries and fruit pies. Perhaps not so surprisingly, people over 65 are also more likely to be overweight than younger adults.
This problem is complicated by the fact that many of the foods that contain sugar, including pies, cakes and pastries, also contain lots of fat – which is why they taste so good. “Sugar is bad by itself and saturated fat is bad too, but it’s the combination of the two that is the real problem,” says registered nutritionist Katharine Jenner. “You don’t find fat and sugar together in nature, but they form the basis of our processed-food diet.”
Another problem with sugary foods is that they often don’t contain vital nutrients, such as protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, which are important as you get older and your digestion becomes less efficient. Eating too many sweet foods, as well as encouraging you to put on weight, could leave you lacking these important nutrients in your diet.
So if sugar is so bad for you, why do we love it so much? And is it, as some experts claim, addictive? According to Katharine Jenner, we are born loving sweet foods. “Breastmilk contains a sugar called lactose and we are born having a preference for sugary foods,” says Katharine. “The problem is that a tolerance can build up so that we end up wanting more and more.”
As any chocoholic can tell you, another reason we love sugary foods is for their mood-boosting qualities. There is growing evidence that sugar stimulates the pleasure centres in our brains in the same way as drugs such as cocaine. “Sweet foods make you happy,” says Professor Sattar. “The addictive centre in the brain lights up just as strongly with sugar as with some drugs.”
Given the possible implications a sugary diet has for our weight and our health, is it possible for the sweet-toothed among us to kick the sugar habit? It’s perfectly possible, says Professor Sattar, but for the truly sugar-addicted among us, it may take a while.
“Your sugar intake can be modulated but, for most people it takes a little time – you need to retrain your palate and gradually wean yourself off sugary foods and drinks,” he says. “If you also make other small changes such as switching from white to wholemeal bread and eating more fruit and vegetables, you may find you put on less weight, or even maintain your weight.”
Given that a quarter of the sugar we consume in the UK comes from soft drinks – and that includes fruit juice and smoothies – another easy way to wean yourself off sugar is to clear your fridge of sugar-sweetened drinks. Watch how much fruit juice you are drinking too. One glass daily as part of your five a day is plenty. Research shows a high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit juice can increase the risk of diabetes. So sticking to water, semi-skimmed milk, tea, coffee and other non-sweetened drinks, or ones that contain sweeteners, really can help to protect your health.
One problem with reducing our sugar intake is that it’s often difficult to spot hidden sugars in the foods we buy. Even savoury foods like soups, sauces and ready meals can contain surprisingly large amounts (see our table below). “The sugar we add to our food accounts for a tiny fraction of the sugar we eat, so it’s important to check labels when shopping and avoid products with high levels of sugar,” says Katharine Jenner.
A high level of sugar in a product would be more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g, a low level of sugar is 5g of total sugars, or less per 100g.
Simple ways to cut down on sugar
- Try halving the amount of sugar you use in your recipes – it works for most things except jam, meringues and ice cream.
- Gradually reduce the amount of sugar you take in hot drinks until you can cut it out altogether.
- If you like sweet, fizzy drinks, try diluting fruit juice with some sparkling water instead.
- Swap cakes or biscuits for a currant bun, scone or some malt loaf with low-fat spread.
- Sugary breakfast cereals can really bump up your calorie count – opt for plain porridge, wholewheat cereal biscuits or Shredded Wheat instead.
Are non-sugar sweeteners safe?
Sweeteners sometimes get a bad press, but there is currently no evidence they can harm our health in any way, says Professor Sattar. “In some people’s minds sweeteners are harmful, but there’s no evidence that they are. There is a theory that, if you have foods or drinks containing sweeteners your body expects a certain amount of calories, and you simply eat more to make them up – but that’s never been proven.”
A word of warning on sweeteners from nutritionist Katharine Jenner: “I wouldn’t encourage people to just replace sugar with sweetener as it means you’re not retraining your tastebuds. It may get you off sugar short term, but it’s not going to have any long-term effect, so try to do without it.”
Secret sugars hidden in our food
Sharwood’s Sweet & Sour Chicken With Rice
Serving size: 375g
Calories (kcal): 420
Equivalent teaspoons of sugar: 6
Innocent Strawberry and Banana Smoothie
Serving size: 250ml
Calories (kcal): 137
Equivalent teaspoons of sugar: 5.2
Copella Cloudy apple juice
Serving size: 200ml
Calories (kcal): 92
Equivalent teaspoons of sugar: 5
Yeo Valley Family Farm 0% Fat Vanilla Yogurt
Serving size: 150g
Calories (kcal): 120
Equivalent teaspoons of sugar: 5
Heinz Classic Tomato Soup
Serving size: 300g
Calories (kcal): 171
Equivalent teaspoons of sugar: 4
Ragu Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce
Serving size: 200g
Calories (kcal): 80
Equivalent teaspoons of sugar: 3
Serving size: 30g
Calories (kcal): 107
Equivalent teaspoons of sugar: 1.5