As we come to the end of 2016, many of us start to look back – and reflect. The year has been defining – even redefining – in many ways. Politics, technology and culture have all seen major leaps and in some cases, hurdles. In public health, it’s been a big year for sugar.
Global recognition is building for the very real health concerns posed by large and increasing quantities of hidden sugar in our diets. This near-ubiquitous additive found in products from pasta sauces to mayonnaise has been in the headlines and in our discussions. The seemingly innocuous sweet treat raises eyebrows from community groups to policy makers - and change is in the air.
Let’s review some of the sugar-coated headers from the past 12 months:
- The global obesity epidemic continued to build while more than two-in-three Australian adults faced overweight or obesity – and almost one in four of our children.
- Australians were estimated to consume a staggering 76 litres of sugary drinks each since January alone, and new reports highlighted that as much as 15% of the crippling health costs associated with obesity could result from sugary drinks consumption.
- Meanwhile around the planet, more countries took sound policy measures to reduce sugar consumption in their citizens. France, Belgium, Hungary, Finland, Chile, the UK, Ireland, South Africa and many parts of the United States implemented, continued or planned the implementation of pricing policies for sugary drinks.
In short, the over-consumption of sugar is now well recognised as a public health challenge everywhere. With all this in mind and a New Year ahead, it’s time to put big words into local action. With resolutions brewing, here are seven helpful tips to breaking up with sugar in 2017.
1. Understand sugar
When it comes to sugar, things can get pretty confusing. Below, I shed some light on the common misunderstandings, but let’s recheck sugar itself – in simplest terms.
Sugar is a type of refined carbohydrate and a source of calories in our diet. Our body uses sugar and other sources of calories as energy, and any sugar that is not used is eventually stored as fat in our liver or on our bellies.
“Free sugars” are those added to products or concentrated in the products – either by us or by the manufacturer. They don’t include sugars in whole fruits and vegetables, but more on that later. For a range of health reasons, the World Health Organization recommends we get just 5% of our daily calories from free sugars. For a fully grown man or woman, this equates to a recommended limit to sugar consumption of roughly 25 grams - or 6 teaspoons. For women, it’s a little less again.
Consume more than this, and our risk of health problems rises.
2. Quit soft drinks
With 16 teaspoons of sugar in a single bottle serving – that’s more than 64 grams – there’s nothing “soft” about soft drinks. Including all carbonated drinks, flavoured milks and energy drinks with any added sugars, as well as fruit drinks and juices, sugary drinks are a great place to focus your efforts for a healthier 2017. Sugary drinks provide no nutritional value to our diets and yet are a major source of calories.
What’s more concerning, evidence suggests that when we drink calories in the form of sugary drinks, our brains don’t recognise these calories in the same way as with foods. They don’t make us feel “full” and could even make us hungrier - so we end up eating (and drinking) more. In this way, liquid calories can be seen as even more troubling than other forms of junk foods. Combine this with studies that suggest the pleasure (and sugar spike) provided by sugary drinks may make them hard to give up – and it’s not difficult to see why many of us are drinking higher amounts, more often and in larger servings. This also makes cutting down harder.
The outcome is that anything up to one-seventh of the entire public cost of obesity in Australia could now result from sugary drinks. In other words, cut out the sugary drinks and you’ll be doing your own health a favour – and the health of our federal and state budgets.
3. Eat fruit, not juice
When it’s wrapped in a peel or a skin, fruit sugars are not a challenge to our health. In fact, the sugars in fruit are nature’s way of encouraging us to eat the fruit to begin with. Fruits like oranges, apples and pears contain important fibres. The “roughage” in our foods, this fibre is healthy in many ways but there are three in particular I will focus on. First, it slows our eating down; it is easy to drink a glass of juice squeezed from 7 apples, but much harder to eat those seven pieces whole. Second, it makes us feel full or satiated. And third, it slows the release of the sugars contained in fruit into our blood streams, thus allowing our bodies to react and use the energy appropriately, reducing our chances of weight gain and possibly even diabetes.
Juice, on the other hand, involves the removal of most of those fibres and even the loss of some of the important vitamins. What we don’t lose though, is the 21 grams or more than five teaspoons of sugar in each glass.
In short, eat fruit as a snack with confidence. But enjoy whole fruit, not juice.
4. Sugar by any other name
High-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, malt sugar and molasses – they all mean one thing: sugar.
As the public awakens to the health challenges posed by sugar, the industry turns to new ways to confuse consumers and make ‘breaking up’ more difficult. One such way is to use the many alternative names for sugar – instead of the ‘s’ word itself. Be on the lookout for:
Evaporated cane juice, golden syrup, malt syrup, sucrose, fruit juice concentrate, dextrose and more…
5. Eat whole foods where possible
Tomato sauce, mayonnaise, salad dressings, gravies, taco sauces, savoury biscuits and breakfast cereals – these are just some of the many foods now often packed with hidden, added sugars.
A study found that 74% of packaged foods in an average American supermarket contain added sugars – and there is little evidence to suggest Australia would be dramatically different. Added to food to make it more enjoyable, and moreish, the next tip when avoiding such a ubiquitous additive is to eat whole foods.
It’s hard to hide sugar in plain flour, or a tomato, or frozen peas. Buying and cooking with mostly whole foods – not products – is a great way to ensure you and your family are not consuming added sugars unaware.
6. See beyond (un)healthy claims
Words like “wholesome”, “natural” and “healthy” are clad on many of our favourite ingredients. Sadly, they don’t mean much.
Even products that are full of sugar, like breakfast cereals and energy bars, often carry claims that aim to confuse and seduce us into purchase. Be wary – and be sure to turn the package over and read the ingredients and nutrition labelling where possible (and if time permits).
7. Be okay with sometimes
The final but crucial message in all of this is that eating or drinking sugar is not a sin. Sugar is still a part of our lives and something to enjoy in moderation. The occasional piece of cake, or late night chocolate – despite the popular narrative painted by industry to undermine efforts for true pricing on sugar – these occasional sweet treats are not the driving challenge for obesity. The problem is that sugary drinks, and sugar in our foods, have become every day occurrences.
With this in mind, let’s not demonise sugar but instead let’s see it for what it is. Enjoy some juice or bubbles from time to time but make water the default on an everyday basis. With the average can of cola containing 39 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar, be OK with sometimes.
Let’s be honest, most countries now face serious health challenges from obesity. Even more concerning, so do our kids. While no single mission will be the panacea to a complex problem, using 2017 to set a new healthy goal of giving sugar the kick would be a great start.
Understand sugar, be aware of it, minimise it and see it for what it is – a special treat for a rare occasion.
This New Year’s, make breaking up with sugar your planned resolution.
“Hey sugar – it’s not me, it’s you…”
This column post was written by Dr Alessandro Demaio in his personal capacity. The views, opinions and positions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any third party. Additionally, those providing comments on this blogs are doing so in their personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of the author. Dr Alessandro Demaio works for the World Health Organization, Geneva.