BUPA GLOBAL

Quitting sugar

Quitting sugar: the highs and lows

Drink can among sugar cubes

When it comes to keeping yourself and your children healthy, sugar is often considered public enemy number one. What impact is sugar consumption having on our health, and how can you help your family cut back?

Globally, our sugar consumption is at an all-time high. Today’s world population gets through an incredible 173 million tonnes each year1. But what does this mean for our health, and how can dietary changes improve our physical and mental wellbeing?

What is sugar?

“Sugar is a simple type of carbohydrate, so it’s one of the essential constituents of our food,” says Bupa general practitioner Luke Powles. “But there are different types of sugars. The type we’re typically interested in, as far as its impact on health, is what we refer to as ‘free sugars’, which are added to foods.”

Bupa specialist dietician Bianca Parau expands: “[We’re talking about] sugars that are used to add flavour, preserve and extend the shelf life of our food, rather than natural sugars found in fruit, vegetables or milk.”

These sugars – which you might see referred to as free, refined or added sugars – contain no vitamins, minerals or other nutrients, Bianca says. They’re commonly found in fizzy drinks, sweets, syrups, honey, biscuits and cakes, and are often added to processed foods like ready meals and jars of pre-made sauce.

Too much sugar can impact your family's health

Unlike complex, slow-release carbohydrates, free sugars release energy quicker, causing the sugar highs and slumps that you’ve no doubt experienced.

“Excess sugar contributes to weight gain,” Luke says. “We know that if we’ve got too much energy coming into the body then the body stores that energy as fatty tissue. This can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.”

Besides weight-related issues, tooth decay is another major way that sugar can impact on your health. Luke adds: “What many people don't appreciate is that, as well as dental problems, tooth decay is actually a big source of generalised infection in the body.”

How much sugar is okay?

Cutting out sugar altogether might be a diet fad that we have seen increase over recent years, but both Bupa experts stress there’s no need to go to such an extreme. “It’s not that you can't eat sweet things at all,” Luke says. “We all need enough glucose in our body to function, and sugar is not carcinogenic on its own. It’s all about the quantity.”

However, Bianca adds: “As you wean yourself off sugar you will start to crave it less, so will ultimately eat less. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends reducing free sugars to less than 10 per cent of your total energy intake2.”

In real terms, Luke says: “[Stick to] ideally less than 30 grams a day for adults, which equates to seven or eight sugar cubes. For kids up to six years old it’s about 19 grams, or five sugar cubes. And for kids between seven and 10 they should have no more than 24 grams.”

To put that in context, a 2015 study by Euromonitor found that the average Brit currently consumes an average of 93.2 grams of sugar per day, ranking seventh highest in the world. The biggest sugar consumers, the United States, get through a staggering 126.4 grams each, while India checks in at just 5.1 grams per person3.

How you can reduce your family’s sugar intake

Knowing that we’re eating too much sugar is one thing, but how can you realistically go about reducing your family’s daily intake?

“It’s difficult for people to quantify how much sugar is in their food but, as a rule of thumb, try as much as possible to eat less chocolate, sweets, buns and cakes – that kind of thing,” Luke says. “Use the red, yellow and green nutritional labels on your food, and try to avoid foods where the sugar content is marked as red.”

Bianca says it’s best to stick to whole and natural foods, with naturally occurring sugars, and to cook from scratch, avoiding processed foods where possible. “Read the labels so you understand what’s in the products you’re buying,” she says. “As you wean your family off added sugar, their tastebuds will get used to it. If you’re really struggling, use artificial sweeteners in moderation.

For Luke, a good place for families to start cutting down is with fizzy drinks and sugary squash: “Replace these with the sugar-free alternatives, low-fat milk or dilute fruit juice with sparkling water.

“Avoid taking sugar in hot drinks or adding it to your breakfast cereal, and try to cut out things like jam, syrup and honey. You can reduce the amount gradually or use artificial sweeteners while you’re getting used to it, or use low-fat spreads that tend to also be lower in calories and sugar.”

For more tips and advice, see dietician Bianca Parau’s sugar swap suggestions for kids.

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