The average brit consumes 140 teaspoons, or 700g, of sugar per week. Added sugars like refined white sugar, honey, syrups etc shouldn’t make up more than 5% of your daily calories – that works out at roughly 30g per day – or 210g a week – quite a bit less than the average 700g many of us get through.
Sugar is the number one food additive: it is added, usually as high-fructose corn syrup, to soft and alcoholic drinks, bread, cereals, table sauces, salad dressings, and to all kinds of processed foods particularly the low or zero fat products like low fat yoghurts and desserts.
Our clients often tell us that cutting out sugar is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s one of the best actions you can take to improve your health and get a handle on your weight. So we thought we’d give you a little info on what sugar is doing to your body, why it’s good to reduce it and some simple tips to help you gradually cut down on the amount of added sugar in your diet.
What sugar does
When you eat something sweet it has a number of effects on your brain and body. Initially it fires you the reward system in your brain, releasing dopamine. It then reaches the stomach and small intestine and is broken down into glucose or fructose. Most of the added sugar in foods comes from things like cane sugar or sugar beets which are equal parts glucose and fructose.
The glucose is absorbed in to the bloodstream and causes your pancreas to release insulin – which helps deliver the glucose to the cells to be used as energy. Often though there is more glucose than we need, blood sugar levels rise and you get that sugar high. The brain will then release serotonin, a hormone which regulates sleep, and results in that sugar crash shortly after.
In addition when insulin levels are high, production of the hormone leptin is blocked. Leptin tells your brain when you’re full, so the more sugar you have, the more insulin and less leptin the body produces and the hungrier you will feel (even when you’ve only just eaten!). Excess glucose is stored as glycogen initially, but once your glycogen stores are full, it will be stored as fat. If you continue to eat too much glucose then this whole cycle also impacts on your brain’s reward system – the brain starts to produce less dopamine, this leads to increased cravings and symptoms of addiction (read more in our previous article on sugar addiction here). If over consumption of sugar continues then you can become resistant to insulin, when that happens it can lead to diabetes, so it can be pretty serious.
Fructose has a similar effect on the body, although it’s the liver that has to deal with it. It’s absorbed in to the blood stream and delivered the the liver, where it’s metabolised to be used by the body. However, the liver can only handle so much fructose, and if you’re taking in loads then over time the excess can result in fat being stored in the liver (lipogenesis) which can ultimately lead to fatty liver disease (this can also be caused by excess alcohol consumption). In addition too much fructose lowers the “good” HDL cholesterol in the blood and promotes production of triglycerides. These triglycerides can end up building up in your arteries, increasing your risk of heart disease or stroke. When the liver can’t deal with anymore fructose it signals the release of more insulin, which, as I’ve said above can lead to a whole host of other problems.
How to cut down
First off, it’s pretty clear that sugar can be addictive, which means cutting it down can be really hard. Now whilst going cold-turkey may work for some people, for many people it’s just not possible. So most importantly, give yourself time and take a step by step approach. This gives your body and taste-buds time to adjust, whilst still being able to get through your day without killing anyone! 🙂 Start by reducing any extra sugar you add – like sugar in tea or coffee, or on cereals, by half and then the following week reduce it by a further half etc. Then check out the processed products you’re eating and try switching to lower sugar alternatives – don’t change everything at once – just pick a few items first e.g. switch your sugar-loaded breakfast cereal with some homemade porridge with seeds and blueberries. Four weeks is usually a pretty good time frame to aim for as it gives your body time to adjust.
#2 Identify the main culprit
Start with your main source of sugar. Think about everything you eat and drink and take a look at the ingredients list – what has the most sugar? You may be surprised to find it’s not what you think it is. Maybe you’re drinking lots of soft drinks or squash, or maybe it’s fruit juice? Or maybe it’s those low fat yoghurts you’re having for your afternoon snack? Or are you having lots of white bread or cakes?
Once you’ve identified the main culprit you can make a plan over your four weeks to reduce it. The key is to view this as an exciting change, not as deprivation or punishment. Try to find alternatives to those foods or drinks that you also enjoy so you don’t feel like you’re missing out.
Just cutting out the main source of sugar will probably result in weight and fat loss, improved energy levels and improved moods – so think about all the positives it will bring!
#3 Eat real food
We know it can be hard to prepare food from scratch when you’re busy and trying to fit everything in to your days, but the less processed, convenience food, you eat the easier it is to control the amount of sugar you’re consuming. If you’re able to start by at least replacing one of your main meals a day with home-cooked food that will make a big difference. Things like cakes, cookies, granola, energy bars, dressings and table sauces are loaded with sugar so they’re obvious candidates to reduce. Low or zero fat foods are also a danger zone – they are marketed as being more healthy, but when fat is removed sugar is often added to help maintain the flavour so do take a close look at the ingredients.
Unless you’re eating massive amounts then it’s hard to overload on natural sugars – by which I mean sugar in fruits and vegetables so if you’re craving something sweet then these are the best option. Not juices, not fruit-loaded smoothies, not compotes, but the actual vegetable and fruit itself. If you actually have to eat the whole fruit or vegetable (rather than just have the juice) you are far less likely to eat too much. The reason? fibre! The fibre in fruits and veg slows the absorption of sugar by the body which helps to regulate the insulin spike. So stick to high fibre fruits and veg where possible e.g. raspberries, apples, bananas, oranges, veggies like broccoli, beetroot, spinach, artichokes.
#4 Sleep more, crave less
If you are sleeping less than 7 hours a night then chances are you will be craving sugar. Many studies have shown a link between sleep deprivation, over eating and junk food cravings. In these studies people who got less than 7 hours sleep a night were shown to consume over 50% more sugary foods than those who got their requisite number of Zzzzz’s in. Lack of sleep also impacts on hormone production and fat storage (read more here). So ensure you’re getting enough sleep. You can read our top ten tips on how to do that here.
So there you go – 4 simple tips to help you cut down on sugar in your diet. Once final thought – although often promoted as healthier options to refined sugar, things like maple syrup and honey can be just as bad. Ultimately all types of sugar are added sugar! It will all affect you in the same way once it’s digested – no matter what the source. So things like maple syrup and honey etc are still something to be mindful of. Yes they are better than refined white sugar as they have a better ratio of glucose to fructose, less chemicals (usually) and often contain antioxidants etc BUT they will still cause that same blood sugar spike and sugar crash. So pick your poison wisely and go for those fibre-filled whole fruits and veggies instead.
This article is written by Dr Nancy Priston. Please remember, she isn’t a medical Dr, the information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your GP or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read on this site.