I spoke to health experts to find out how to control an excessive intake of sugar and the correct amounts to consume.
There are a number of reasons people can’t control a craving for sugar, be it hormonal, or the brain programmed to use glucose as fuel, or the consumption of sweets as an emotional crutch.
Dietitian Cathryn Megaw said the hormonal cycle is complex.
“If our body has excess sugar intake to normalise the levels in our blood, the body produces insulin and if insulin is produced in excess it will cause a feedback to ask for more sugar so it can go back to a state of equilibrium, and so begins a vicious cycle.”
She said the body will always choose the easiest and most accessible form of energy, which is glucose and which the brain is also able to use as for energy.
The hormone insulin allows glucose into the cells and stimulates serotonin, our feel-good hormone. The more serotonin we get used to having in our system, the more we need to feel good and so eventually we crave this hormone which is boosted by sugar intake.
Virgin Active’s wellness programme manager Sandi Van Zyl said the reasons for craving sugar can vary from physiological to emotional needs. Although it is a good idea to address potential medical conditions that might predispose one to sugar cravings, it is also important to be aware of other triggers such as emotional upsets, boredom and irregular eating patterns, all of which can be managed using various strategies. Some strategies include planning meals and finding outlets that don't include food to relieve stress. One frequently asked question is: what is the correct intake of sugar?
The World Health Organisation's guidelines recommend that added sugar should comprise no more than 5% of one’s total food intake.
“It is important to note that added sugar doesn’t include sugar that occurs naturally in fruit, vegetables, dairy products and whole grains. It includes table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, molasses and any high-calorie sweeteners used in processed foods and beverages.”
This would equate to about six teaspoons of added sugar in the case of an average female and nine teaspoons for an average male.
An example is one glass of sweetened cold drink which contains about six teaspoons of added sugar. Another is a 300ml flavoured drinking yoghurt, which is likely to contain about nine teaspoons of added sugar.
Megaw says our bodies can get all the sugar it needs from whole fruit and vegetables and whole grain starch products. It does not need additional sugar, especially refined sugar. The best way to avoid that is to stop eating fast and processed foods. The less labelled foods you eat the less sugar you will get. Megaw suggests cooking foods from scratch and avoiding juices and fizzy drinks.
To ensure you are on the correct path, she suggests making healthy tweaks to your lifestyle.
Exercise produces the same “feel-good effect” as sugar and keeps your heart and blood healthy and your body fit.
“Increase intake of protein foods and healthy fats and limit the amount of fruit juice and cakes and fizzy drinks. Using natural sweeteners such as honey and Canadian maple syrup for those sweet moments are much healthier than sugar substitutes.”
Ensure you include sufficient fibre, protein and healthy fat in your meals so your blood sugar levels are better controlled. As soon as your levels drop too low, your body goes into a type of "survival mode" and you are more likely to opt for the highly processed foods with lots of added sugar
Always opt for whole foods where possible and limit heavily processed foods. When it comes to fruit, opt for whole fruit instead of fruit juice.