· By Julia Boase
Why I'm not Hysterical About Sugar...
I’ve been a paediatric dietitian for almost 20 years, long enough to realise that there is always a current “buzz nutrient” and at the moment the finger is squarely pointed at sugar.
I did my university training during the low fat era, where we were encouraged to cut back on the fat in our diets to curb the calories and promote weight loss. To a certain extent it’s not unreasonable advice. Fat is more calorie dense than either protein or carbohydrate, so reducing your intake can reduce your overall calorie intake. BUT that was only part of the picture. We’ve worked out that a little fat in our diets is actually quite satiating (filling), and including fat as part of a balanced meal adds taste and flavour, and leaves us feeling well, fulfilled.
The food industry picks up on these buzz nutrients and tends to run with them. In the low fat era of the 90s and early 2000s, we saw ultra low fat snack foods of various varieties (think yoghurt, sweet biscuits and desserts) all hit our shelves plastered with “No Fat” labels. On closer inspection what was actually happening is that once food manufacturers removed the fat, the product was bland, tasteless and unlikely to sell. The answer to this problem was to lace them with sugar. The result? As the fat in our diets decreased, our intake of sugar increased. Overall our diets didn’t improve, and neither did our health. Part of the problem with such an intense focus on just one nutrient is that it tends to overlook the fact that we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. The low fat era just caused us all to pay more attention to the processed foods we were eating, not to the overall quality of our diet. It did very little to promote eating more vegetables, fruits or wholegrains - the things we know we need to eat more of.
I see all of this playing out again with sugar. In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) released its recommendations for sugar intake for both adults and children. They found that there was moderate evidence to support reducing our sugar intake to 10% of our total energy intake. This is tricky to calculate, but for school aged kids would be in the range of 8 - 13 teaspoons of sugar a day. “Sugar” refers to the free sugars in our diet - that’s sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides - e.g. glucose syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, rice malt syrup etc..) added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates” (WHO, 2015).
This evidence primarily relates to obesity and dental caries. This does not mean that sugar can cause you to become overweight or obese, it simply means that people who consumed a higher sugar diet were more likely to have a higher body weight. We know that obesity is associated with a higher risk of some diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
Once again, we have seen a rush of food manufacturers producing “Sugar Free” foods, but a quick survey of the label will often reveal that it’s simply been replaced with a sugar alternative such as brown rice syrup or sweetened with apple juice - all still sugars. The influencer/wellness industry is also big on using sugar alternatives in recipes and cooking and claiming them to be sugar free. Honey, maple syrup, rapadura, coconut sugar and brown rice syrup are all still sugar.
I think most parents naturally desire to feed their kids a healthy diet. It’s always a concern to me that these misconstrued messages that focus more on nutrients than food, influence the way we feed our kids. Kids don’t need sugar free diets, in fact none of us do.
Much like fat can leave us feeling satiated after a meal, a little hit of sweetness can do the same thing. I’m a child of the 80s and 90s which means I hit my teen years when the “low fat” trend reached it’s peak. I have vivid memories of my Mum suddenly stocking the fridge with “no fat” yoghurts and low fat cheese both of which in my opinion, tasted horrible. I recall really going off yoghurt at that time. I see the same thing happening now, but instead of taking out the fat, it’s now the sugar. Now I’m going to preface this by saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with unsweetened greek yoghurt, but if you or your child doesn’t enjoy it, then there’s no need to feel guilty for giving them yoghurt with sugar in it.
I see a lot of nutritionists and dietitians really against yoghurt with added sugar (for the record if your child is under 2yrs then I’d avoid it too), and yes some varieties have a lot of sugar added to them. But let’s stop and consider for a moment that yoghurt is a great source of protein, calcium, phosphorus and B vitamins, to name but a few nutrients. Both sweetened and unsweetened yoghurt provide the same amounts of these nutrients. If you’re avoiding offering your kids yoghurt because they only like the sweetened variety, then you can be missing out on some of these quality nutrients.
Once again I feel like we’ve got it wrong with too much emphasis on just one nutrient and what to avoid, rather than on what we should be eating.
To reduce sugar in your diet I think you really want to focus in on those foods that offer very little other nutrition, e.g. soft drinks, lollies, chocolate, ice cream, cake, cookies - I think you get the idea. It’s a good idea to limit, but not remove these foods altogether from your diet. I know I couldn’t live without a piece cake or a bowl of ice cream here and there, and probably neither can you (and you don’t have to).
Then of course there’s the category of foods (like yoghurt) that include plenty of nutrition but usually have a bit of sugar added to them, think muesli, some breakfast cereals, snack foods and baked goods you might make at home (like the recipes you find on my website). I think it’s perfectly ok for these foods to include some sugar, in fact, I think most of your sugar intake should come from this category of foods that also deliver some decent nutrition. Often the sugar free versions of these types of foods are awfully bland, and really don’t leave you feeling satisfied (but if you’ve got some sugar free foods you love in this category then go for it!). Of course the argument is that consuming too many of these foods with “hidden” sugar in them can lave you with a large sugar intake by the end of the day. My argument would be that if we focus on consuming mostly whole foods and a quality diet (so plenty of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, quality protein and not so many snack foods etc), then I think there’s room for these foods.
I’m a big believer in the fact that food should be really tasty and that you should be able to enjoy and feel satisfied after a meal, not just eating a healthy food because you think you should - that makes eating nothing more than a chore and I’m not here for it.