Sugar is everywhere. From convenience food to fruit juice, it is seemingly inescapable. There are, however, some healthy replacements for sugary treats – it’s just a matter of knowing where to find them. A balanced diet should include few foods with lots of added sugar, as they can negatively affect your health, but most of us crave something sweet now and again, so it’s good to be aware of the alternatives.
What is sugar?
Nutritionists group sugar into two groups, free sugars and naturally occurring sugars.
- Free sugars are those which are added to food by a manufacturer, which can also include honey and fruit juice/concentrate.
- Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruit and milk. These are OK to consume as long as you eat them “whole”- e.g. as part of the food they are naturally found in. For example eating a whole orange is healthier than just drinking its juice, because the sugar is moderated by the fibre content of the orange when eaten whole.
The sugars we need to consume less of are the added “free sugars”. Sugar is often hidden in everyday food items such as bread, baked beans, pasta sauce and cereals. Anything on the ingredients list which ends with “ose”- glucose, fructose, sucrose and so on, is a form of sugar.
Why is sugar unhealthy?
- Tooth decay
Bacteria break down sugar on your teeth and produce acids which dissolve the tooth’s surface. This can lead to cavities and tooth decay. Sugary food which sticks to teeth such as dried fruit is especially damaging. Fruit juice and soft drinks should also be kept to a minimum as they coat the teeth in sugar. The NHS recommends only drinking 150ml per day, and having it at mealtimes to reduce the damage.
- Weight gain and obesity
Sugar is very high in calories and low in nutritional value. Eating too much of it means putting far more energy (calories) into your body than it can use, which can lead to weight gain and obesity. This is especially true if you live a sedentary lifestyle.
This rush of “empty calories” from sugar may also mean you eat less nutritious food and miss out on essential nutrients.
- Increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes
Despite what many think, a sugary diet isn’t itself a direct cause of type 2 diabetes. But obesity can be caused by a high-sugar diet, and obesity is a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.
Effects of sugar on heart health
A high sugar diet can contribute in several ways to raising your risk of cardiovascular disease.
- High sugar intake can contribute to obesity, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- Sugar may also contribute more directly to heart disease by raising blood pressure and lowering levels of HDL (good cholesterol) in the bloodstream, both of which are risk factors for heart disease. A high sugar may also raise the amount of triglycerides in circulation in your bloodstream. These are a type of fat which can contribute to artery blockage. The British Heart Foundation thinks this more direct connection between sugar and heart disease needs more evidence.
How much sugar can I eat?
The NHS recommends you shouldn’t get more than 5% of your daily calories from added sugars. This is about 30g per day, or seven teaspoons. The average Brit between 18 and 65 eats 58.8g of added sugars daily- so on average, we need to cut our sugar consumption in half in order to lower our risks of heart disease and obesity.
Heart-healthy sugar substitutes
Instead of going for the soft drinks, biscuits and chocolate when you’re peckish, try slowly substituting for healthier snacks. At first this will be difficult because your body is craving the quick energy burst provided by sugary foods. But as you make the switch on to more nutritious foods, which release energy more slowly, your blood sugar levels will settle down and you’ll find you have more sustained energy throughout the day.
Some ideas for healthier snacks:
- Homemade popcorn
- Wholemeal toast with nut butter
- Seasonal fruit
- Nuts and seeds
- Veggie sticks with hummus.
Sugar is seemingly everywhere, but with some smart swaps you can lower the amount of added sugar in your diet and begin a healthier relationship with your heart! For extra info to keep your ticker running smoothly, check out 7 Tips For A Healthy Heart. The British Heart Foundation also has a useful guide on eating for your heart health. If you’re concerned about your heart health, book an appointment with your GP to discuss your options.