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Are you eating too much sugar?
NUTRITION

Are you eating too much sugar?

What a contentious word, “sugar” is. Is there someone you know on a sugar-free diet, has no sugar or is addicted to sugar in some way? How many types of sugar are there? Which is the best one and how much sugar on a daily basis, is ok?

Sugar is a carbohydrate that can be added to foods and is also found naturally in vegetables, fruits and dairy products.

Sugar has been a valued commodity for thousands of years and whilst it was not an essential food product, it was a highly demanded luxurious one. The sugar cane plant is originally from south east Asia and it reached Europeans in the 12th Century. However, the main manufacturer at the time was India and Indian Commonwealth colonies, which due to demand, drove the sugar slave trade to erupt a few hundred years later. Sugar production expanded to other areas of the world including Australia.

Today, sugar production and manufacturing is now industrialised and mechanically operated. It is the third-ranking crop in the world that requires and consumes the highest land mass for growth. Brazil is the largest sugar producer in the world, whilst America is the largest consumer.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends the consumption of “free” sugars should not exceed more than 10 percent of the total energy intake per day (50grams = 12teaspoons). This recommendation is to help prevent weight gain and dental cavities. 

Free sugars are sugars that are added to foods during the food manufacturing process or added to foods and drinks by the consumer, such as: glucose, dextrose, fructose, sucrose (household sugars), maltose (malt sugar) and also fruit juice, fruit juice concentrates, honey and syrups (corn, maple, agave etc).

In Australia, over half of the population, consumes more than the WHO recommends. The highest consumers of sugar are adolescents (14-18 year olds), who consume an average of 92grams per day (22 teaspoons).

Can sugar harm your health?

Sugars come in many forms and have many names. Although it is no longer an item of luxury, it is used extensively in the production of commercial food and eaten daily in many forms. High sugar consumption may contribute to a number of health complications, both in the short and long term.

Sugar metabolism in the body is regulated by the hormone, insulin. Our bodies break down sugar into glucose which is transported into the cell, by insulin. This natural process can be easily disrupted if the intake of sugar is continuously high.

Let’s look at some ways excessive sugar intake can affect your health.

1. Weight gain and Liver health

When you eat sugar, the hormone insulin, picks glucose up from the blood stream and instructs the liver, muscle and fat cells to use the glucose as energy. If the intake of glucose is excessive, this action can become compromised, forcing the excess amounts of glucose to be stored as fat.
However, cells have a maximum capacity to store glucose as fat and when there is too much glucose to store this can result in, fatty liver, enlarged fat cells (weight gain and obesity) and fat storage within the muscles.

2. Mood Imbalances

When “free” sugars are consumed, insulin needs to act quickly to move the sugar out of the blood stream. However, if we eat sugar regularly and often, this will lead to frequent episodic elevations of glucose in the blood stream, causing constant fluctuations of insulin. These frequent fluctuations can play havoc on your health, leading to mood swings, fatigue, headaches and a craving for more sugar.
These highs and lows of glucose in the blood can also lead to detrimental metabolic issues relating to insulin control such as insulin resistance.

3. Immune health and Inflammation

The consumption of sugar can also effect other areas of the body too, such as immune health. Circulating glucose levels which are not regulated by insulin can raise immune inflammatory cells in the body. The ingestion of free sugars can also decrease the function of immune fighting cells (phagocytes) which engulf bacteria and viruses. Excessive and frequent sugar consumption may exacerbate inflammatory conditions such as joint and skin conditions and lower immunity.

Telltale signs you are eating too much sugar

Signs to look out for that you are eating too much sugar:

  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Skin breakouts or redness
  • Swollen, sore and inflamed joints
  • Repeated infections or poor recovery from illness
  • Needing a “pick me up” and reaching for sugary type foods
  • Dental cavities and poor gum health
  • Moodiness, irritability and brain fog
  • Poor sleep
  • Struggling to lose weight or gaining a “middle tyre”

6 Tips on how to reduce your sugar intake?


Here are some handy tips to help decrease your overall sugar consumption:

  • Read the labels – If you buy anything in a packet, make sure you read the label. Anything ending in “ose” is a sugar. Hidden sugars can even be found in bread, both white and brown!
  • Avoid fruit juice and “healthy” smoothies – They are often laden with hidden sugars. Even if they claim to be “healthy” they often will have a high sugar count. Read the nutritional profile on the bottle for the carbohydrate and sugar content.
  • Avoid processed foods – They will have obvious and hidden sugars. You will even find prepackaged savoury meals and snacks have some form of sugar.
  • Fruit- Get your sweet fix from fresh fruit. Fruit contains fibre and a natural sugar called fructose. The fibre will help release the natural sugars slowly, helping to minimise the blood sugar fluctuations. Limit your serves to 2 or 3 a day.
  • Protein and fats- Consume healthy fats (such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds) and clean proteins (unprocessed meats and fish). They can help make you feel fuller for longer and decrease your cravings for sugary foods and drinks.
  • Home cooking and baking – Try making your own foods and meals from scratch, at least you know what goes in it. If baking is your passion, then look at alternative sugars such as; stevia, erythritol and monk fruit sugar, which does not affect insulin levels and has zero calories.
  • Whilst it may not seem easy to reduce your hidden sugar consumption. Take small steps to begin with and start with your kitchen cupboard and fridge. Read the labels on all your food packages and make a commitment to begin buying fresh foods and making your own meals.

A little effort can take you a long way!

Reference:

  • Australian Government Department of Agriculture and water resources, 2017 Policy context relating to sugars in Australia and New Zealand www1.health.gov.au
  • Horton, M et.al, 2015 A history of sugar- the food nobody needs, but everyone craves. The Conversation, Academic rigour, journalist flair
Michelle Matthews
Author

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