Should you quit sugar?

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If you’ve been following the anti-sugar crusaders (and there are more than a few of them around!) you could easily believe that sugar is poison. But is it really, and should you be avoiding it altogether?

The fact is that sugar is just a form of carbohydrate, and like other carbs is broken down to glucose to provide your body with energy. However unlike many other carbohydrate foods, such as wholegrains, legumes, fruit and starchy vegetables, sugar provides energy but no other nutrients, so for most of us, should only play a small part in our overall diet.  This is particularly the case if you are trying to lose weight, where there is little room for ‘empty calories’, and if you are trying to manage blood glucose and insulin levels.

When we think about sugar, most of us think of table sugar, or sucrose, but sugar actually comes in many forms, including the naturally occurring sugars in fruit (fructose) and dairy foods (lactose).

So where does sugar fit in and should you avoid it altogether?

  • It makes sense for most people to minimise their intake of added sugars, particularly as part of foods with little other nutritional value, such as lollies, soft drinks and cordials.
  • Including small amounts of sugar as part of an otherwise healthy food or meal really isn’t a problem, for example adding a teaspoon of brown sugar to your morning porridge. But you could also replace the sugar with some stewed apple & cinnamon, for natural sweetness with the added benefit or more fibre and nutrients.
  • Sugar is often hidden in places we don’t think about and can add up. Fortunately, there are some easy swaps you can make to lower your intake. Examples might be switching a jar of pre-made pasta sauce for canned crushed tomatoes, adding your own fruit to natural yoghurt rather than buying the sweetened varieties, and making your own muesli in place of the commercial varieties.
  • The natural sugars in fruit and dairy foods come along with other important vitamins and minerals, and fibre (in fruit), and also have a lower glycemic index which means they’re more slowly digested and don’t raise blood glucose levels to the same extent as other forms of sugar. There’s no need to avoid these sugars – fruit and dairy foods (e.g. milk and natural yoghurt) can make a valuable contribution to our nutrition.

One thing to remember is that the sugar content on a food label doesn’t refer just to the amount of added sugar in a food, but the total amount of sugar which includes both added sugars and those naturally occurring.  So dairy foods like milk and yoghurt, and foods containing fruit or dried fruit may appear to be high in sugar, but this is from the natural sugars these foods contain rather than added sugar.  This means that the sugar content on a label is not particularly helpful. But if a food is high in sugar and doesn’t contain fruit or dairy, it’s probably best left on the shelf!  Check the ingredient list and avoid foods where added sugars appear high on this list.

It’s also important to know that there are many names for added sugars including dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, maple syrup, rice malt syrup, coconut sugar, raw sugar and sucrose.  And while some may be promoted as ‘heathier’ choices they are all still added sugars with little nutritional value.

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