Training - 31st July 19
James Hudson, Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport. James played Premiership Rugby for Gloucester, as well as lining up for London Irish, Newcastle Falcons and England Saxons. He has a degree and masters in biochemistry from the University of Bath and has completed the International Olympic Committee’s Diploma in Sports Nutrition. He is currently working towards a PhD at Liverpool John Moores University.
What’s in this article:
- How much sugar do I need?
- Low sugar foods
- Are sugar substitutes safe?
- Should I stop or reduce sugar intake?
Barely a day goes by without another study on the impact sugar has on your health. And with sugar levels sky-rocketing in processed foods, governments and health authorities have started cracking down hard.
“It has become demonised - and there’s a lot of people suggesting that you cut it out of your diet altogether”, says nutritionist James Hudson, who has completed International Olympic Committee’s Diploma in Sports Nutrition.
But is sugar really all that bad? While some studies suggest it has been linked to a variety of diseases, it’s also an everyday part of our diet and many foods. Our guide aims to give you tips on how to stop eating sugar by cutting down the amount you eat.
At a glance…
- Adults shouldn’t have more than 30g of free sugars a day
- Healthy foods that curb sugar cravings can be effective as replacements
- Removing sugar completely from your diet is very difficult
- Reducing the amount of unhealthy sugar you eat is more realistic
How much sugar do I need?
Adults shouldn’t exceed 30g of sugar per day – this makes up no more than 5% of your daily calorie intake¹. While this seems straight forward, there’s actually one big aspect of sugars that this guidance misses out – the type of sugar you eat. Speaking broadly, there are two main types of sugars:
- Natural sugars. These are found in fruits and milk, and are necessary for energy and bodily functions. This is not included in the NHS daily intake calculations
- Free sugars. These are additional sugars that are added to unsweetened fruits, smoothies and syrups – and many processed foods. These are the sugar you should limit to 30g a day
But, it’s hard to visualise what 30g of sugar actually looks like - especially when some food packaging can be hard to decode.
Free sugars in common foods²:
- Bar of milk chocolate (44g): 24.6g
- Can of energy drink (255g): 28g
- Bowl of granola with raisins (60g): 17.4g
- Chocolate brownie (100g): 46g
- Slice of large white bread (30g): 1.3g
Natural sugars in common foods³:
- Semi-skimmed milk (200ml serving): 9.4g
- Almonds (100g, toasted): 5.1g
- Cauliflower (100g, cooked): 2.4g
- Bananas (136g, large): 24g
- Sweet potatoes (100g, baked): 14.5g
Importance of sugar in your diet
While the so-called ‘white devil’ has become the focus of many diets aimed at cutting calories, it’s not as simple as removing sugar totally to get healthier.
Cutting out unnecessary sugars is useful when you’re trying to eat healthier - but this naturally-occurring ingredient still has a part to play in a balanced diet.
James says, “Where people get it wrong about sugar is when they talk about the negative effects of sugar in fruits or milk – these types behave differently to free sugars.”
When you consume sugar as carbohydrates, it’s broken down into glucose. As soon as this hits your body cells, it’s transformed into energy that gets your muscles working.⁴
But energy can be stored if not used up. Un-used glucose can be kept in your liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. Think of it as a safety store in case your glucose levels drop - common when you’re exercising.
Using a healthy amount of sugar, you can quickly top-up your reserves and give you an energy boost.
A certain amount of sugar is essential as it helps you operate physically and mentally – as it helps brain functions too.
Need to know: You should limit the amount of additional – or free sugars – you consume in your diet and concentrate on eating natural sugars from fruits and milk instead.
Low sugar foods
Eating low sugar foods can help reduce your overall intake of sugar, while also providing extra nutrients and health benefits.
We’ve picked out a selection of fruits, vegetables, breads and grains that have low-sugar content to add to your meal plans.
Foods that are low in sugar
- Wholemeal bread – contains just 2.8g of sugar per 100g compared 3g in white - and it’s higher in fibre
- Porridge – high in fibre and other minerals, porridge can cut nearly 70g of sugar from your diet when you substitute it for sugary cereals⁵
- Legumes – beans, chickpeas and lentils are rich in fibre, carbs and protein – and can fill you for longer, making you less likely to turn to sugary snack between meals⁶
- Fish – varieties like cod and salmon are low in sugar and contain nutrients from natural fish oils⁷
- Yoghurts – many natural yogurts contain low levels of sugar and are high in probiotics, proteins and calcium⁸
Foods that curb sugar cravings
While it’s central to many diets, cutting sugar completely from your diet can be tough.
Especially given that, according to James, “very few foods will list sugar as an ingredient on its own – it’ll usually be listed as syrup or something similar.”
There are foods, though, can keep your sweet tooth happy and cravings at bay, while also supplying you with a healthy amount of energy for your workouts.
- Fruits – the natural sugars in fruits can ease your cravings and provide nutrients when you swap out sugary snacks
- Berries – blackberries, raspberries and strawberries contain just 5-6g of sugar per 100g, making them an ideal healthy snacking option
- Smoothies – use fruit to give a sweet flavour you’d normally get from processed foods, with added nutrients and natural sugars
- Trail mix – dried fruit and nuts are fantastic snacks that are packed with protein, fibre and healthy fats – without the excess sugar
Need to know: Introducing more low sugar foods into your diet and replacing your sugary snacks with sweeter and healthier options that curb your cravings is key.
What about sugar substitutes?
Sugar substitutes might seem like the obvious solution, but like most quick fix answers, it’s not as easy as that. Their aims is to offer a low-calorie option to sweeten food and drink, and are also used in the production process of cakes and ready meals.⁹
You’ll often find them in diet versions of soft drinks to replace sugar content. And while this soft drinks aren’t as healthy as a glass of water, James believes diet versions could help curb sugar cravings:
“The levels of sugar alternatives in soft drinks are so low, they don’t cause any health concerns. If you need a soft drink to manage your desire for snacking on sweet things, there’s nothing wrong with choosing diet versions.”
There are several natural sugar alternatives too - like honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup – that can be added to everything from soups to smoothies to sweeten them up.
Health benefits of sugar substitutes
• Effective at replicating the taste of sugar, without the high calorie intake and elevated blood sugar levels – particularly beneficial for diabetics¹⁰
• High-quality natural substitutes like honey can contain antioxidants
Drawbacks of sugar substitutes
- Even though they’re lower in calories, they’re often replaced if you snack on other high-calorie sources – negating the effect of removing sugar¹¹
- There’s no evidence sugar substitutes provide health benefits, according to a study funding by the World Health Organisation (WHO)¹²
Need to know: Sugar substitutes are effective at replacing free sugars, however they should be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet to get the benefit of losing these sugars – rather than be seen as a sole fix.
Should I stop or reduce sugar intake?
Removing sugar from your diet is incredibly difficult. Many healthy foods contain a degree of sugar, meaning its almost impossible to maintain a balanced diet without it¹³.
Reducing the amount of sugar you eat is more realistic, as it still gives your body the sugar it needs to create glucose – while also helping to lower your risk of developing conditions related to high sugar consumption.
Try and keep below the 30g recommended levels – maybe by cutting out a chocolate bar or turning to sugar-free alternatives.
James believes that adding extra sugars to foods with already sky-high content is the problem.
“If added sugars are combined with high fat content, the calorie count of that food will be very high – added sugar can be very negative for those managing their calorie levels,” he says.
Before weighing up whether to cut out sugar from your diet, or reduce it significantly, it best to look at both sides of the argument.
Positives of sugar
- When eaten from healthy sources like fruits and honey, sugar is a useful source of energy
- Sticking to your recommended intake provides nutrients for the rest of your body – along with energy¹⁴
Negatives of sugar
- Excess sugar from processed foods and drinks can cause visceral fat to accumulate, contributing to you becoming overweight
- Eating too many high-in-added-sugar foods can spike your blood sugar levels, giving you a brief burst of energy, but eventually draining your energy levels – causing you to “crash” and feel tired
Balancing your diet is the best course of action - rather than cutting out sugar cold turkey. Try substituting certain high added sugar foods for healthier alternatives, which can give you a sustained energy boost. Not only can this help with your workout and when you’re going about the rest of your day, it can keep your body in better condition and reduce your risk of developing harmful conditions.
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