Not so long ago, fat was considered the worst possible thing you could eat – and especially if you wanted to lose weight. These days, sugar has become the enemy of the health conscious. In recent years, a number of studies have claimed that eating too much sugar is just as bad, if not worse than fat.
One such project, the results of which were published in 2014 by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, found an association between a high-sugar diet and a greater risk of heart disease.
High amounts of sugar were said to overload the liver, which converts dietary carbohydrates to fat. A greater accumulation of fat, the study said, could lead to liver disease, which could result in diabetes, heart disease or stroke. It could also lead to high blood pressure, inflammation and weight gain.
Dietician Sarah Keogh of eatwell.ie however says we need to be aware of ‘sugar hysteria’, that the panic to avoid all forms of sugar is too much. “These studies do show us the need to be mindful of consuming high amounts of sugar, but we don’t need to panic about every bit of sugar that we eat.”
All of the panic about sugar is not from qualified dieticians, she adds. “Guidelines from dietitians to limit sugar have actually been around for the past 35 years and have been formulated mainly to protect the teeth.”
She points out that many of the diseases linked with sugar are due to the impact of becoming obese. However, the same effects are seen if someone who becomes obese from eating too much fat, carbohydrate or protein.
Most of us eat on average of 14 teaspoons of sugar per day, which is too much. We should aim get our sugar intake down to around seven teaspoons, but this is as much for the benefit of our teeth as our waistline. This advice is also supported by the World Health Organisation (The WHO).
The WHO recommends we get 10 per cent of our calories per day from sugar. However, it emphasises the importance of differentiating between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar.
Natural sugar occurs in food such as fruit, vegetables, milk and natural yoghurt. Added sugar meanwhile is found many processed foods and it is this, which contributes to harming our teeth.
A 500ml soft drink for example contains an average of 10 to 12 teaspoons of sugar and it provides no other nutrients whatsoever. So rather than cutting out sugar altogether, we should be aiming to cut out ‘added’ sugars. Otherwise we could be denying ourselves good food, which contain a range of essential vitamins and nutrients.
So how do you know if sugar has been added to a food? Sarah recommends checking the ingredient list on processed food for added sugars. “Look out for sugar, dextrose, glucose and any kind of syrup,” she says. “You don’t have to avoid the food if these ingredients are there - small amounts are fine as part of a balanced diet.
“The lower down the ingredient list, the less of it there is in the food. Do look at the nutrition table as well. The total amount of sugar in the food (both natural and added) will be on the nutrition table.”
She also has no problem with artificial sweeteners. “The European Food Safety Authority has assessed - and continues to assess - sweeteners and concluded that they are safe,” she says.
She points out too that many of the alternative sweeteners on the market these days are actually sugars under a different name. “Honey, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, agave syrup and coconut sugar are all sugars and therefore need to be limited just like ordinary sugar.”
In general, she says we should aim to reduce added sugar to seven teaspoons per day and not worry about the sugar in natural foods like fruit, milk or natural yoghurt.
“Most of the sugar we eat tends to come from soft drinks, confectionery, cakes, biscuits and treat foods. Limiting these foods is the best way to reduce sugar. Looking at labels for other foods can help you choose a lower sugar option, but there is no need to avoid every bit of sugar or to feel guilty if you do enjoy the occasional sweet treat.”
For more information visit: www.eatwell.ie