Elly McGuinness takes a look at the sugar debate, and gives us some realistic advice.
Recipes and nutrition plans centred on sugar-free, low-sugar, or free-from-refined-sugar meals and snacks can be found a plenty on the internet, and in modern cookbooks.
Why move away from the sweet stuff?
- A diet high in sugar can:
- Lead to accelerated tooth decay.
- Be highly addictive, leading your brain and body to want more.
- Cause insulin spikes and troughs which, over time, challenge the body’s ability to use insulin effectively and increases the risk of type II diabetes.
- Cause energy peaks and troughs rather than steady energy throughout the day.
- Lead to excess storage of body fat. Sugar that is required for energy is burned off. After that, the liver and muscles store some. Anything remaining after this is stored as fat.
But don’t I need some?
All carbohydrate foods will eventually be broken down into sugar inside the body. This includes foods like fruit, vegetables, grains and legumes. So, if you are eating a balanced diet your body and brain will be getting plenty of it. It will also be in a more sustaining form, allowing a gradual release of energy throughout the day, rather than the energy spikes and troughs experienced with high-sugar foods.
Are less refined options better?
Cane sugar, whether it be white or ‘raw’, and even more so ‘high fructose corn syrup’ (HFCS) are the most refined forms of sugar that can have the largest negative impact on the body. This is because, in the refining process, the nutrients have been removed making the end product a very unnatural thing for the body to deal with.
Unrefined alternatives include honey, fresh dates and pure maple syrup. These will provide nutrition for the body and will not impact it in the same way that sugar will. For example, honey has a lower glycaemic index than sugar, meaning it will release sugar into the body more slowly. Unrefined alternatives can still result in insulin spikes and are best consumed alongside other foods that are primarily fat and/or protein based.
Beware of any sugar alternatives on offer, whether they are natural sweeteners such as stevia, or claiming to be ‘less refined’, such as brown rice syrup. Reliance on or craving for any form of sweetener (even unrefined ones) is a signal to your body that there’s something missing in your overall nutrition picture.
Practical tips to help you reduce your sugar intake:
- Avoid processed juices and fizzy drinks. Instead, have a couple of serves of fresh fruit and/or berries which will provide you with a sweet fix along with fibre and nutrients. Add squeezed lemon or herbs, such as mint, to fresh water for flavour.
- Significantly reduce packaged and highly processed foods, which often contain hidden sugars. If you must eat something from a packet, check for added sugars – anything ending in ‘ose’ (lactose, glucose, dextrose, sucrose…), and HFCS.
- Dressings and sauces are usually high in sugar. Make your own, so you know what’s going into them. Balsamic vinegar and olive oil can make a simple, tasty salad dressing
- Select baking recipes with sugar substitutes such as dates, pure maple syrup (not the stuff with sugar added!) or honey. Also ensure there are protein/fat based foods in the recipes, such as nuts or seeds. This will lower the glycaemic index of the food and slow down the release of sugar into your body.