How sugar affects your lifestyle

Sugar: good or bad?

We sat down with Boots nutritionist Vicky Pennington and asked her some questions about sugar – but before we dive into that let’s have a look at the low-down on sugar.

How much sugar should we have per day?

As many of us will already know, eating too much sugar can cause weight gain and tooth decay. But there are two types of sugars found in our food, free sugars and natural sugars. Free sugars are sugars added to food, and can usually be found in all the food we hate to love that are likely to cause weight gain and tooth decay if eaten excessively. For example:

• Biscuits, puddings/desserts and cakes

• Chocolate and sweets

• Flavoured yoghurts

• Sweetened breakfast cereals

• Fizzy drinks

• Honey and syrups

• Sauces

• Fruit juice

• Jams and spreads

That’s not to say we should stay away from them altogether, but there’s a limit to the amount, and frequency of, added sugar that can be part of a healthy diet

• Adults should have no more than 30g a day (roughly seven sugar cubes)

• Children aged seven to ten should have no more than 24g (six sugar cubes)

• Children aged four to six should have no more than 19g (five sugar cubes)

Did you know a can of ‘full fat’ pop can contain as much as nine cubes of sugar!

Is all sugar bad?

Not all. Natural sugars are sugars found in certain foods like whole fruit and whole vegetables (fruit and veg that aren’t processed), milk and unsweetened yogurts which we don’t need to cut down on, and are an important part of a healthy diet.

Newer alternatives such as coconut sugar and agave syrup are being used as a substitute for white sugar, but are they actually healthier? Agave syrup, for example, has approximately 21kcal per tsp. compared to table sugar which has 16kcal per tsp. – not to mention the high cost. Syrups and sugars such as coconut sugar or agave syrup contain free sugars just like white table sugar rather than natural sugars, so they should be limited, too. If you prefer coconut sugar or agave syrup to refined white sugar, still limit your intake and reduce how often you eat them and foods containing them.

Helpful little sugar swaps

Too much sugar means extra calories, which can lead to stored fat in the body and weight gain. This can increase the risk of health problems like heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes. Here are some little sugar swaps worth adding to your diet:

• Try less sugar in your hot drinks or replace with artificial sweeteners

• Instead of high sugar breakfast cereals, try plain porridge, wheat biscuits or shredded wholegrain wheat

• Limit fruit juice to one 150ml glass per day at a meal time

• Look out for canned fruit in natural juice instead of syrup

• Try plain rice cakes with dark chocolate instead of cakes and biscuits

• Grab a diet drink instead of a ‘full fat’ one

• Instead of going for a chocolate brownie for pudding, go for some frozen yogurt or share the brownie with a friend(!)

Now let’s get down to our Q&A with Vicky.

Why do we need sugar?

Vicky says, "Sugar is a source of carbohydrate and carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source. Sugar also plays an important role in providing flavour and texture to foods."

What are the dangers of high sugar diets?

Vicky says, "It’s the amount and how frequently you eat sugar that really matters. As sugar contains calories but few nutrients, eating too much sugar and too many foods and drinks rich in added sugars, instead of other more nutritious foods, may mean that your diet is less healthy and nutritious than it could be."

Why is the sugar found in soy milk or fruit not as harmful as 'added sugars'?

Vicky says, "It can be helpful to distinguish sugars trapped within the cellular structure of food (such as whole fruits and vegetables) from sugars found freely in foods like honey or those added to food. The difference in location of the sugars affects their availability to bacteria in the mouth and their speed of absorption. Free sugars are readily available for bacteria in the mouth to act on, turning sugar into acid and increasing the risk of tooth decay."

Do you have any tips for spotting a high sugar food?

• Check the ingredients list, as the nearer sugar is to the start of the list, the greater the amount. Ingredients such as glucose and syrup are sugars, too

• Check out the amount of sugars as a percentage of the adult daily reference intake (%RI) as this shows the amount of sugars in the context of daily diet

Do you have any top recommendations for a healthy diet?

• Try to cut down on foods that contain lots of added sugar such as sweets, jam, chocolate, cakes, biscuits, sweet desserts and soft drinks

• Don't add sugar to your food or drink – just one teaspoonful of sugar (4g) will add an extra 16 calories

• Foods and drinks containing sugar shouldn't be eaten or drunk frequently as they can contribute to tooth decay

So basically, try and do everything in moderation (limited, small amounts not too frequently) and try sugar swaps where you can. It may take a while to get into it, but any way you can reduce your sugar intake – big or small, can help.