Is sugar really that bad for you?

The argument about whether sugar is bad for you continues to rage on. Clearly it is not the best food to be shoveling down our throats each day, but surely the old adage of ‘everything in moderation’ still stands true, doesn’t it?

Well, experts would beg to differ, as research increasingly suggests that sugar is proving as bad for us as alcohol and nicotine. With the average person in Britain consuming a whopping 238 teaspoons of sugar each week, often without even realising so, is it any wonder that obesity levels in this country are rising?

Simon Capewell, who is Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Liverpool, explains that, “sugar is the new tobacco. Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now passed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health. The obesity epidemic is already generating a huge burden of disease and death.” Recent reports have found that one in four adults in England is obese and most worryingly, three in every ten children aged between two and fifteen are also now classed as overweight or obese.

Children are seen as a particularly vulnerable group, because the marketing of sweets, sugary drinks and cereal are often heavily focused on them. Parents feel pressurised by the constant demands of their children to buy these products, often with very little knowledge about how bad they actually are for their health. One action group, Action on Sugar,  have been campaigning for food producers to dramatically reduce the levels of sugar in everyday products and a study at Oxford University suggests that if a 12p tax was added on fizzy drinks, consumption would be cut by 15%. That’s all well and good for foods such as sweets, biscuits, cake and sugary drinks like Coca Cola, which we know contain large amounts of sugar, but many people are unaware that items such as soups, ketchup, and ready meals also contain a large amount of hidden sugars. It’s hard to even think about a savoury food containing sugar, because if we were to make the same thing from scratch at home, we wouldn’t even think twice about adding sugar to a recipe, it just wouldn’t be right. But it is these hidden sugars that are the main culprits in our battle against sugar. For example, a tin of Heinz tomato soup contains the equivalent of four teaspoons of sugar and a Yeo Valley vanilla yogurt, something we would probably think of as a healthy food, contains five teaspoons. In fact, some of the worst offenders of high sugar content are those foods labeled as low fat. By lowering the fat in a product it can take away some of it’s ‘tastiness’ so producers compensate by adding more sugar as a flavor enhancer.

So what exactly is the problem? Fat levels seem to have been addressed in these so-called low fat, healthier foods but with the rise in obesity and our increased sugar consumption, surely this is not merely a coincidence.

Robert Lustig, a Professor of Paediatric Endocrinology at the University of California, is a strong pioneer of the movement against sugar and has published numerous scientific and press articles along with his well known book ‘Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar’.

Lustig argues that calories need to be thought of and consumed in different ways, because monosaccharides, the very simple form of sugar, are not equal. For example, table sugar, which is made up of fructose and glucose, is not metabolized in the same way that a carbohydrate, also a sugar, like flour is. His belief is that the fructose molecule in sugar is to blame, which surely means we shouldn’t be eating fruit? Well, no, that of course cannot be the answer. We are constantly being told we should be eating 5 a day, or is it now 8!? So, what exactly, is so bad about fructose? Scientists believe that fructose, known as ‘fruit sugar’, is capable of fooling our brains into thinking we are not full, hence we overeat. Bad in itself, but perhaps more concerning is that too much fructose cannot be converted into energy and any excess is turned into liver fat. This results in a resistance against insulin, which will eventually lead to diabetes and heart disease. By it’s very nature, fructose is the naturally developing nutrient that is in fruit to entice creatures to eat them. Most fruits contain low levels of fructose and the benefits far outweigh the bad, but it could help explain why sugar can become so addictive.

With its comparison to alcohol and nicotine addiction, can sugar truly be an addiction? Are we a nation of sugar addicts? Experts increasingly believe that to be the case. Back in 2007, French scientists carried out a series of animal trials which demonstrated that rats would chose sugar over cocaine, even when they had previously been addicted to the cocaine. That’s some powerful research right? The theory behind it is that we use sugar as a crutch or reward or even as a short term energy rush, but with that comes an inability to restrain our self-control mechanisms, which consequently leads to an addiction. We’re all guilty of reaching for the biscuit tin when we’re in need of some quick energy or dipping into the box of chocolates if we’ve had a rubbish day, an apple is certainly not going to have the same effect. But the effects are short lived and the crash and burn after that initial sugar rush can leave us feeling lethargic and guilt ridden. Gwyneth Paltrow wrote in one of her blog entries on her website Goop, that “ sugar gives you an initial high, then you crash, then you crave more, so you consume more sugar. It’s this series of highs and lows that provoke unnecessary stress on your adrenals. You get anxious, moody (sugar is a mood-altering drug) and eventually you feel exhausted.”

Like any drug, it would be crazy to think we could remove all traces of sugar from our diet at once and as dietician Sylvia Turner, from the British Dietetic Association (BDA) explains, “sugar is not bad for you as part of a balanced diet. It has an important role in providing flavor and texture to foods.” So how can we go about making some simple changes to our diet that cuts out some of those hidden sugars?

First and foremost, we must become label savvy. Perhaps the most confusing thing for the consumer is the multitude of different names that sugar can be disguised as. Some packaging uses a colour coded system, which can make choosing the food with lower levels of sugar, salt and fat easier, however it is important to become more nutrient aware and it certainly helps if you know what you are looking for. Sugar can be listed in the ingredients under any of the following names:





Hydrolysed Starch

Invert Sugar

Corn Syrup (High Fructose Corn Syrup or HFCS)


Your end goal should be to eat only natural foods or foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. This means cutting out, or realistically cutting down, ready meals and processed foods, such as ready-made sauces. As a rule, the longer the list of ingredients the more likely sugar is going to be included within that list. Added sugars should not make up more than 10% of the energy, or calorie content, that you get from food and drink within a day, which for men works out at about 70g and for women 50g. Nutrition labels will tell you how much total sugar is in a product and as a guideline anything over 22.5g per 100g is high in sugar and anything under 5g per 100g is low in sugar. If you prefer to think in terms of teaspoons, 4g is approximately equivalent to 1 teaspoon of sugar.

The presenter, Davina McCall has recently joined the long list of celebrities who have cut sugar from their diet. She has recently brought out a book, ‘Davina’s 5 Weeks to Sugar Free’, which charts her journey of omitting sugar from her diet and includes easy to make recipes to help you lead a healthier lifestyle. You can also join a support network of other self professed sugar addicts, who are keen to take up the challenge of kicking the sugar habit, on Davina’s Facebook page.

Here are some very easy swaps that can be made to your diet, which will dramatically lower your intake of sugar without you even really noticing.

1. Change what you eat for breakfast.

Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day as it is the first food your body has had for the hours whilst you have been asleep and it needs to provide you with enough energy to kickstart your day and get you through to lunchtime. Many of the breakfast cereals found on our supermarket shelves are ram packed with sugar, with some containing up to 37%, you are certainly going to feel that crash and burn mid morning with that in your breakfast bowl! If you have time in the morning, think about introducing eggs to your breakfast. Whether they are poached, boiled or scrambled, eggs are packed with protein and will definitely fill you up until lunch. If, like most of us, mornings are spent rushing around like a headless chicken then think about reaching for a wholegrain cereal instead. Porridge made with low fat milk or water, with fruit on top to sweeten it up, is both filling and satisfying. Just this simple swap could cut out 70g, which is up to 22 sugar cubes, from your diet over the space of a week!

2. Make your food tasty.

If you decide to go completely cold turkey, then make sure you make your meals interesting. Try replacing the sweetness with other flavours such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and other herbs and spices. These will help sweeten your food naturally and will help reduce those cravings.

3. Drink plenty of water.

More often than not, we mistake thirst for hunger, so reach for a glass before a plate. If you prefer your drink to have flavour, try adding a slice of fruit, such as lemon or lime, or herbs, such as mint or lemongrass, to liven it up a bit. Avoid sugary, fizzy drinks and instead choose those labelled as sugar free. A 500ml bottle of cola contains the equivalent of 17 cubes of sugar.

4. Eat regularly.

By eating three meals with two snacks or five smaller meals a day your body’s blood sugar levels remain stable. When blood sugar levels drop, you feel hungry and this is the time when you are most likely to crave and give in to those sugary snacks.

5. Get enough sleep.

Having enough sleep each night really is one of the most beneficial things we can do for our health. When we are tired, we often mistake this lethargy for hunger and it is all too easy to reach for a sugary snack to give us that energy kick.

6. Choose healthy snacks.

When you next go out shopping keep an eye out for lower sugar versions of your favourite snacks. Foods such as popcorn, rice cakes, unsalted nuts, oatcakes, fruit – dried or fresh are all great alternatives but if you really can’t bear to get rid of your afternoon slice of cake, opt for a healthier currant bun, fruit scone or malt loaf instead.

7. Do you need pudding?

Some people don’t feel like a meal is complete without having a pudding at the end of it. If you are one of these people, I sure know I am, then consider making it a weekend treat or something you only have if you go out to a restaurant. Alternatively, set a rule that if you must have pudding, then it must either be a piece of fruit or some natural yogurt flavoured with homemade fruit compote.

A great resource for advice on how to make simple cut backs on your sugar intake can be found on the Change4life website. You can also send off for a free advice pack, which includes money off vouchers, stickers, a shopping pad and fun ideas to help you and you family change your diets for the better.

Ultimately, I think you need to address whether you consider yourself to be a sugar addict and whether you have come to rely on sugary foods to get you through the day. Has it become a habit that you get to the afternoon and automatically reach for a chocolate bar? If so, then maybe you should consider knocking some of those habits on the head. Don’t let sugar be the one that controls you. The first step is admission and the second is action. Just remember, everything in moderation!

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