The white stuff hidden in everyday foods could be the reason it’s hard to lose weight and may put you at a higher risk of diabetes. We quiz the experts on ways to spot sugar and how to cut down.
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This article is packed with everything you need to know about sugar, but you can also jump right to the sections that interest you by clicking on any of the links below:
- How sugar hides in food
- How sugar can age you
- How sugar can age you
- 3 ways sugar can harm your health
- How to spot hidden sugars
- 5 ways to cut down on sugar
- Sugar alternatives
We consume around 21 teaspoons of sugar a day – nearly twice what the World Health Organisation says we should. That doesn’t even count sugar from fruit and adds up quickly because many sugars are hidden in foods where we least expect them.
An overload of sugar is found not only in cakes and treats, but also in pasta sauces, tomato sauce, canned veg and even pre-packaged soups. In fact, some studies have shown that ready meals contain as much sugar as ice cream.
Now, a growing band of doctors and dieticians believe excess sugar is not only making us overweight, but may also be contributing to mood issues, skin wrinkling and an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The problem is, most of us consume more sugar than we realise – added sugar lurks in soft drinks, sweets and jams, and researchers have found added sugar hidden in some breakfast cereals and “healthy” biscuits.
How sugar hides in food
“Many doctors are concerned about the cunning of the processed-food industry, which takes simple, raw ingredients, such as grains or tomatoes, removes the nutrition they hold, then adds large amounts of sugar to make them tastier – cereals and yoghurts are an example,” says Professor Capewell.
Among the most insidious hidden-sugar foods are those labelled “low fat” in which the fat is replaced by sugar for taste.
And it causes wrinkles!
“A diet high in sugar causes inflammation that can make skin age quicker,” says dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams. Sugar molecules bind to proteins, such as the collagen in your skin, in a process called “glycation”, which makes its surface tissue more stiffer and less flexible. A study conducted last year by Leiden University in the Netherlands found that the more sugar and high-GI carbs a person ate, the older they looked.
3 ways that sugar harms your body
Dr Alex Richardson of the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention at the University of Oxford, explains why we should try to cut back on sugar.
- Weight: Sugar provides a quick burst of energy. Around half-an-hour later, blood-sugar levels drop, leading to cravings for more sugar. Excess sugar not burned off is stored as fat.
- Health: The pancreas releases insulin in response to high-sugar foods. Constant insulin spikes can lead to a resistance to insulin, which could develop into type 2 diabetes.
- Mind: Pronounced highs and lows in blood-sugar levels affect mood, energy, attention and concentration. High-sugar diets have also been associated with depression and memory decline.
What about cravings for pudding after eating a big meal?
Satiety signals, the appetite-regulating release of hormones that tells your brain you’re full, take at least 10 minutes to occur from the time you finish eating.
So just after eating, we’re not aware that we’re full, and seeing a dessert menu can make us think we want to eat more. Waiting just 10 minutes before even asking for the pudding menu can do away with cravings.
“People with high-sugar diets tend to be stuck in craving cycles,” says nutritionist Sarah Bowles-Flannery. The good news is, this works in reverse – when you eliminate added sugars, you may experience cravings and a headache, even a low mood, but these invariably lift by the sixth day and cravings start to disappear. As your taste buds re-adjust, you’ll find foods you craved before are simply too sweet.
Spot hidden sugars
- Read the label. Look at sugars per 100g on labels. 15g or more per 100g is a high-sugar food, while 5g per 100g or less is a low-sugar food. The World Health Organisation has recommended we keep our intake below 10 to 12 teaspoons (around 50g) per day.
- Know sugar’s aliases. Sugar can be disguised as maltose, dextrose and fructose, and may even be listed as molasses, treacle or high-fructose corn syrup. Honey, and most syrups are also sugars.
- Understand the listing. If sugar is in the top three ingredients, then that’s a high-sugar food, but manufacturers sometimes sneakily list sugar in different forms, so what matters is the “per 100g” listing.
5 Ways to cut down
Practical ways to slash your sugar intake from nutritionist Sarah Bowles-Flannery.
- Add cinnamon. Shown in trials to help keep blood sugar even. Add to plain yoghurt and fruit or porridge for breakfast.
- Protein at every meal. Have a little protein, such as eggs, nuts, seeds, lean meats and poultry, soya products, tahini or nut butters at every meal and for every snack.
- Stay hydrated. You may mistake thirst for sweet cravings, so drink plenty of water.
- Head off a sugar craving. If your weak spot for sweet cravings is 4pm, schedule a healthy snack (raw almonds or walnuts and a piece of fresh fruit) for one hour before.
- Take a 15-minute walk. A study found regular chocolate eaters who went for a daily 15-minute walk during their working day halved the amount of chocolate they ate, even when they were under stress.
What about alternatives?
- Sweeteners. Try stevia, a kilojoule-free sweetener that comes from a plant. “Stevia appears to be a safe alternative that doesn’t spike blood sugar,” says Sarah Bowles-Flannery. It’s available at leading retailers.
- Chewing gum. Choose a pack that has been sweetened with xylitol. Watch out for wind if you have too much, though!
- Condiments. Horseradish, mustard and mint sauce are low in sugar. Make your own salad dressing with ingredients such as lemon or lime, mustard, olive or sesame oil, chilli powder and soy sauce.
- Diet drinks. They don’t contain sugar, but can leave you craving that sugar taste.
- Worried about what food labels may not be telling you? Read more on this topic here.
If you want to go sugar free, but aren’t sure where to start, sign up to our #7Days #FreeFrom sugar newsletter. For one week, we’ll send you all the recipes, tips and inspiration you need. Sign up for free here.
DISCLAIMER: Before starting any diet, you should speak to your doctor. You must not rely on the information on this website/newsletter as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.