Why is sugar bad for me?
Why is sugar bad for us, and what are the current guidelines? Registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens answers these questions, reveals the common sources of hidden sugar and suggests some easy ways to reduce your intake.
Increasing evidence suggests that it's the sugar rather than the fat in our diets that is the major contributing factor to our obesity epidemic. Registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains the 'hidden' sugar you may not know you're eating and how to spot it on food labels...
What is sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in a number of different foods, from lactose in milk to fructose in fruit and honey. There are two types of sugar: naturally occurring sugar, such as lactose, and added or 'free' sugars that include refined table sugar (sucrose) as well as concentrated sources like fruit juice, honey and syrups. Health organisations including the NHS advise we cut back on these 'free sugars.'
Find out more about your recommended daily sugar allowance in our guide on ‘how much sugar should I eat?’ Looking for a sweet alternative or want to know your fructose from your sucrose? Discover more in our sugar hub.
How much sugar can I eat each day?
Recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK's official nutrition advisors are that only 5% of our daily calorie intake should consist of added 'free' sugar. This means:
• Adults should have no more than 30g a day (approximately seven sugar cubes).
• Children aged 7-10 years old should have no more than 24g a day (six sugar cubes).
• Children aged 4-6 years old should have no more than 19g a day (five sugar cubes).
Why is sugar bad for me?
Consuming too much sugar may lead to health issues such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay.
If you're very active and exercise regularly some sugar in the diet helps supply ready energy to fuel your muscles and keep your brain active. The problem for the majority of us is that many of the processed foods we eat – in particular those marketed to children – have added sugar that supplies energy in the form of ‘empty’ calories, so we end up consuming more than we need.
Eating too much sugar on a regular basis may lead to:
• Energy slumps: a high intake of sugar causes our blood sugar levels to shoot up, giving us that feel-good 'high’, which is followed by a crashing slump that leaves us tired, irritable and craving more sugary foods. This vicious cycle may compound other health problems.
• Weight gain: over-consumption of sugar leads to extra pounds and may in turn increase our risk of chronic health conditions.
• Diabetes and heart disease: over time excess sugar may damage blood vessels and nerves.
• Tooth decay: a common problem and with its incidence increasing, sugary snacks and fizzy drinks are major contributors.
In recognition of these health issues, the UK government has issued guidelines for the food industry to promote the reduction of sugar in packaged products.
Where is the hidden sugar in food?
The instant 'lift' we get from sugar is one of the reasons we turn to it at times of celebration, or when we crave comfort or reward. However, even those of us without a sweet tooth may be eating more than we realise because so many everyday shop-bought foods – from cereals and bread to pasta sauce and soups – contain sugar. Here are some common examples:
• 'Low-fat' and 'diet' foods often contain extra sugar to help improve taste and palatability and to add bulk and texture.
• 'Off the shelf' savoury foods, like ready-made soups and sauces, may contain added sugar, this is because we are naturally drawn to sweet flavours making these products more popular.
• Breakfast cereals, bread and even yogurt may contain added sugar.
• Fizzy drinks – on average one can contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar.
How is sugar listed on food labels?
Find out how much sugar is in your food by doing these simple checks:
• Look at the 'carbs as sugars' on the nutrition panel. This includes both natural and added sugars. Less than 5g per 100g is considered low, more than 22.5g per 100g is high.
• Check the ingredients list – any items ending in 'ose' (glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, maltose) are all forms of sugar, as are honey, agave, molasses and syrups like corn and rice syrup. The higher up the ingredient list these are, the more sugar the product contains.
• Manufacturers are increasingly using what they describe as more ‘natural’ sugars like coconut sugar. These are still ‘free’ sugars and carry the same health risks, despite the healthy perception.
• Know your substitutes. Xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol occur naturally in small amounts in plants and fruits and are often used in low-calorie products to provide sweetness, but with fewer calories.
What can I do to minimise my sugar intake?
It can be hard to spot added sugar, because the figures (carbs as sugars) on the label include both naturally occurring sugar and added sugar. The most effective way to minimise your sugar intake is to avoid highly processed foods, buy whole foods and cook from scratch more often. When you do buy off the shelf – check the ingredient list carefully. In addition to this add less sugar to tea or coffee and choose water instead of sugary drinks.
Find out more at our sugar hub.
Useful resources for cutting down on sugar:
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This page was reviewed on 3 March 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Follow Kerry on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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