Sugar gets a bad rap these days but are claims that treats are toxic actually reasonable? Sweet-talking OHbaby! nutritionist, Anna Hansen, serves up the facts.
In the time of our early ancestors, before machinery was created to extract the juice of sugar cane, sweet foods were rare; stumbling across a berry bush wasn’t an everyday occurrence so the odd binge on berries would have been considered arealtreat. Fast-forward to 2015 and refined sugar is added to many of our everyday food products, and a lot of us eat sweet foods multiple times a day.
In the 1980s and 90s we thought fat to be the ultimate nutritional baddie, but now we know that good fats are essential for our bodies to function well and are in fact not going to cause weight gain the way too much sugar does. Kiwis are over-consuming sweet things and need to be more aware of the fact that it is sugar, not fat, which plays havoc with our health. Research shows that the over-consumption of sugar can lead to type 2 diabetes, obesity, dental issues, liver problems and depression, among other things. Recent studies also suggest that sugar is addictive. The warnings seem dire and the solutions unpalatable, yet there are simple things we can do to reduce the sugar intake in our diet.
How much is too much?
The odd biscuit is no big deal but the average New Zealand male is eating a whopping 30.5 teaspoons of sugar a day, with 24 teaspoons a day being the average for a New Zealand female (according to the most recent New Zealand adult nutrition survey). This is far more than the 5% of total dietary calories (about 6-9 teaspoons a day) that the World Health Organisation now recommends. We are clearly eating too much sugar and our consumption is on the increase, as are rates of the accompanying diseases.
Sugar gives us energy that the body processes faster than complex carbs, fats or proteins, and if we eat too much sugar the excess energy will be stored as fat. Unfortunately it’s easy to over-eat sugary foods or refined carbohydrates as our brain doesn’t get the message from our hormones that enough is enough the way it does when we are eating protein or fats.
Hide and seek
We know that we aren’t doing ourselves any favours if we reach for the junk food, but sugar is also hiding in many foods that are perceived to be healthy or ‘low-fat’, such as muesli bars, low-fat sweetened yoghurts, breakfast cereals and fruit juices.
In his recent documentary Is Sugar the New Fat?, Nigel Latta was shocked to discover hidden sugar in many everyday items, such as tomato sauce and baked beans. Damon Gameau explores the idea of hidden sugar in That Sugar Film, due for release this autumn, a documentary based around the actor and filmmaker attempting to consume 40 teaspoons of sugar a day (the amount of sugar an average teen in Australia is eating). He chooses non-junk food sources which are often thought of as healthy options. He suffers major effects such as weight gain, fatty liver and cognitive impairment as a result.
An apple a day
Some are questioning whether we should be eating a lot of fruit, considering it is high in fructose. However, fruit gives us fibre and a host of nutrients including phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. So, a piece of fresh fruit is in fact a great option when you are craving something sweet. Fructose found in fruit is digested at a slower pace than refined sugar, so after a piece of fruit your blood sugar levels won’t spike in the same way they would after a treat containing refined sugar. However, fruit juice or tinned peaches in syrup are a different story, so opt for fresh fruit where possible – and don’t overdose.
Less is more
If sugar is a substance you know you are overdoing but don’t think you can live without, you are certainly not alone. Yet it is worth taking stock of what you are eating because it is possible to reduce the amount you are consuming without too much effort. Your body will thank you in the long run as you will have more energy, sleep more soundly, have a clearer head and more balanced moods.
The easiest way to reduce the sugar in your diet is simply to eat foods in their most natural forms – fresh and whole, by making meals from scratch and by reading the ingredient list on the packaged foods you are buying. In addition, make sure you add protein foods to each meal (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes) and eat good fats daily, such as nuts, seeds, avocados and oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, macadamia and other nut oils. It goes without saying that eating a range of colourful fresh vegetables along with fresh fruit adds goodness to your plate.
Anna Hansen is a nutritionist with a holistic approach, as well as mum to three small children. Check out facebook.com/AnnaHansenLoveFood for further inspiration and more sugar-free ideas.