For decades, fat was the major food group regarded as being the most harmful. Then there was the hype about good fats which were recommended to keep the body healthy. But sugar has come under the spotlight as it has quickly taken a prominent place in the list of harmful foods.
The focus has been spurred on by the high rate of sugar-related disorders such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. There are many reasons why people love sugar and, with holidays and indulgence over, cutting back on sugar will be the New Year’s resolution of many.
Gabriel Eksteen from the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA said people are biologically hard-wired to like sweet foods. So sugar is added to thousands of foods.
“We become so used to the taste of sugar that foods taste bland when it’s suddenly removed. It is further not always obvious which foods contain sugar and how much, which leads to unknowing consumption,” said Eksteen.
Health and wellness expert Vanessa Ascencao likens sugar to any other stimulant and warns that it can be addictive. As with any other stimulant, it also affects blood sugar levels and triggers cravings for more.
“Sugar spikes make you feel like you are crashing and burning all day. It is also a source of empty calories so you never really feel satisfied,” said Ascencao.
There are many health hazards for consuming too much sugar, she added.
“Eating too much sugar can lead to depression, mood swings, weight gain, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease and premature ageing. It can also disrupt your hormones, affect your sleep, zap your energy and contribute to a host of chronic health issues,” she said.
Sugar is found in almost everything we eat.
Association for Dietetics in SA spokesperson and registered dietitian Jessica Byrne said: “The problem with sugar comes not when we indulge in a sweet treat on occasion, but when we over-consume, which can be easy to do when sugar is added to many of the processed foods we buy, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, sweetened yoghurts, frozen desserts, some breakfast cereals, many sauces, cereal bars and health biscuits, canned or packaged fruit, as well as confectionery and baked products.”
She said people do not realise how much sugar is in these products - for example, 500ml of sweetened iced tea contains about nine teaspoons of sugar.
High-sugar foods can also be high in unhealthy fats and salt and are easily available and heavily marketed, making it more of a challenge to avoid them.
“It can also be difficult to know if a product contains added sugars, because sugar comes in many forms besides the table sugar we typically add to tea and coffee. Ingredients such as agave, cane sugar, corn syrup, dextrose or dextrin, fructose, fruit juice or concentrate, invert sugar, maltodextrin, maltose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, galactose, glucose, honey and sucrose are all various forms of sugar.”
Eksteen said people should not be fooled by “natural” sugar like coconut sugar, honey, agave, brown sugar, sugar from dates and the countless other options.
“Sugar is sugar, and normal table sugar from cane is as natural as any of these. Aim to gradually reduce your total daily sugar intake,” added Eksteen.
Byrne gives tips on how to beat sugar cravings:
You can curb your sugar intake and reduce your sugar craving over a small amount of time by gradually reducing your intake.
For example, if you use two teaspoons of sugar in your tea or coffee, cut down to 1½ teaspoons for the next week or so.
Once you’ve got used to that, cut down further to one teaspoon for another week.
Continue gradually reducing the amount you add, and your taste buds will adjust quickly.