Sugar, supersweet supervillain

The more we learn about sugar, the more we see what a devastating effect it has on our systems. It’s incredibly addictive - actually more addictive than cocaine!  It strips the minerals from your body and is a very acidic food. It also increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes; it causes anxiety, depression, inflammation; it weakens the immune system, reduces concentration, prematurely ages the skin, creates fat on the midriff and, more importantly, causes ‘hidden fat’ around the organs. Ever heard the phrase ‘skinny fat’? This refers to people who have a high-sugar diet but are quite slim as a result of the fat being stored around their organs, instead of the midriff.

The unfortunate truth is, even if you don't think you consume much sugar in cakes, buns or sweet treats, it’s hidden in most processed and packaged foods. The food industry has given us an unnaturally sweet tooth by adding sugar to processed foods, fuelling a sugar addiction and making you buy more, which is exactly what they are hoping for! Dressings, sauces, soups, low fat foods, jam, cereal, granola, cereal bars, fruit juice, fizzy drinks and even most breads contain added sugar. If you check the ingredients of something as simple as a tomato pasta sauce, you’ll be surprised at how high up the list of ingredients sugar is. The higher up the list, the more there is. Not only does the food industry add vast quantities of sugar, it also tries to disguise it by using a long list of names that we may not be familiar with. Anything ending in ‘ose’ is a form of sugar - glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose and maltose. Other sugars are honey, maple syrup, molasses, corn syrup and rice syrup. The best way to avoid all these hidden sugars is to eat an unprocessed, wholefood diet as much as possible. It would be unrealistic to think that we can control every mouthful, but if you eat well the most of the time, your body will be better able to deal with the odd dinner out or family celebrations.

No matter what form it takes, sugar is sugar and it has the same harmful effect on the body. When more than 2 teaspoons are consumed, the body releases insulin, which transports the surplus sugar out of the bloodstream to be stored in the cells as fat. It also sends a signal telling the brain that you are still hungry, and blocking the natural message telling you when you are full.

Supposedly 'healthy' juices are, unfortunately, predominantly made of fruit rather than veg and even a green juice can dump up to 11tsp of sugar into your system from one small bottle. That’s 9tsps more than your body is expecting! We all know fruit is good for you but we have to remember, it’s still a source of natural sugar. A good rule of thumb is, if it tastes sweet, it contains sugar and should be consumed mindfully. The daily recommended allowance of added sugar is 5-6tsp for women and 7-8tsp for men (World Health Organisation). Sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruit, veg, dairy and grains. ‘Added sugar’ is any sugar consumed in addition to these naturally occurring sugars, and are mainly found in processed foods.

Children should limit their added sugar intake to 3tsp a day. There seems to be a misconception that children need energy from sugar. But, without the fibre naturally occurring in wholefood, the energy they get from this source is released too quickly into the system and causes low blood sugar - tiredness, irritability and a craving for more sugar. We are all too aware of the negative effects of sugar on our waistlines, and it affects children in the same way, as well as causing tooth decay, behavioural problems, and increased rates of obesity, which leads to health problems later in life. It also teaches young tastebuds to develop a sweet tooth and starts a sugar addiction from an early age. Of course they will be exposed to vast quantities of sugar at parties, but I find children are more sensitive to sugar and reach their sugar limit much sooner when they have a low-sugar diet.

Sugar gives what we call, ‘empty calories’. Meaning it has no health benefits and causes plenty of health problems! Cane sugar, the most common form of sugar, is highly processed, to the point that it has zero health benefits. Some alternative sugars or sweeteners do have some health benefits and when indulging in a little treat, it’s best to use these to add some value to your snack and compensate the effects of the sugar. Nutritional Therapist Amelia Freer, champions a low sugar way of eating and has a comprehensive list of sugar alternatives on her website. She has also published a No.1 bestseller book called 'Eat. Nourish. Glow', which outlines 10 principles of healthy eating. A book which I frequently revisit, to remind myself of her 10 simple, easy to follow steps to better health. When altering a recipe, I pull back on the sugar, as most recipes are much sweeter than they need to be. Start by reducing the amount by ¼ and as your palate gets used to it, you can reduce it further. Bear in mind that baking is a science, and some recipes work better than others with this method. Gradually reduce your tolerance to sugar until all your old favourites become too sugary for your palate.

So how do you start reducing your sugar consumption? The best place to start is by doing a kitchen clear-out of all the main culprits in your kitchen. Check the ingredient list of all bottles, packets and processed foods. There can be a period of adjustment, where you have to restock your kitchen with healthier choices, but the long term health of you and your family is worth it. Replace low fat yogurt for natural yogurt, chutney for mustard, ketchup for tomato puree, sweet chilli sauce for tamari and balsamic vinegar for apple cider vinegar. Make a big batch of tomato sauce and freeze it in 400g portions. Invest a bit of time on Sunday night, making homemade soup and a batch of granola bars, for a week of lunches and snacks. Homemade dressings, pestos and hummus are always good to have at hand to throw together tasty and fast dinners.

Your sugar addiction will try to find ways to keep itself going. Next time you reach into the cupboard for a little pick-me-up, think for a minute what is driving you? Tune in to how you feel with and without added sugar in your system. When you do have a well earned treat pick one that offers you something more than just a sugar hit. Savour the moment and make sure these savoured moments are not too frequent!

Ruth Delahunty Yogaru