Get real – go sugar free

Spend less time choosing colourful packets... and more time choosing colourful foods

Spend less time choosing colourful packets... and more time choosing colourful foods

The recent media frenzy about sugar has caught your attention, but now you’d like to know how to go about avoiding the stuff when it seems to have infiltrated every product going!

Well, the secret to successfully curbing sugar doesn’t lie in scouring the information on the backs of packets to check the sugar quantity or grabbing the next faddy sugar-free diet food. I believe it’s about cutting back on the processed foods in our diets.

Nearly every processed food found in a packet is laden with hidden refined sugars. Think about fizzy drinks, fruit juice, processed cereals, ready meals - including the low fat ones, white sliced bread, crisps, bottled sauces, condiments and flavoured yoghurts, to name a few.

Even with food industry steps to regulate sugar, a diet dependent on processed food may never be sugar-light, not to mention free of other possible nasties such as trans fats, additives and preservatives.

Lightening the sugar load naturally

So you could say that quitting sugar is really about going back to the type of foods we ate before Kelloggs hit the shelves, and embracing what we call ‘real food’.

Real food is food in its simplest forms - un-tampered and uncomplicated nourishing raw ingredients which are products of nature - not industry. Real foods are ‘whole’ – think meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts. They don’t have a huge list of ingredients on the back – they don’t even need a colourful packet! Taken to the extreme, dairy products and grains would be excluded from a 'real food' shopping list, however, I personally enjoy these in the form of cheeses, real butter, full-fat greek yoghurt and a moderate amount of whole-grains.

Sugar doesn’t play a huge role in real food – the natural sugars in most whole foods are delivered in a volume and format which our bodies are well versed in metabolising – and I believe the negative health implications of natural sugar from whole foods in a balanced diet is negligible.

However, if you find yourself affected by even a conservative sugar load, then you may wish to get savvy about the sugar content of natural sweeteners and tropical fruits too. On the other hand, if you’re living on sweet and sour take-outs and pouring cola down your throat, then realistically, fruit consumption may be one the last things you need to worry about!

Keeping it real

Depending on the nature of your existing diet, a ‘real food’ focus could be a small step change or a complete lifestyle overhaul. Either way, it will need commitment to the idea and a spot of planning.

When preparing a meal, focus on making protein the ‘centre piece’, for example, chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef, quinoa, goats cheese or eggs, and then bulk out the rest of your plate with a big colourful salad or lots of cooked fresh veg. Infuse your meals with flavoursome spices and herbs, and always add a good lick of healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado or olive oil to help keep you satisfied.

Don’t panic, real food doesn’t have to mean hours in the kitchen and it doesn’t need to be complicated. Sugar-light swaps can be convenient too – like adding a handful of berries and nuts to a greek yoghurt, stuffing a wholemeal pitta bread with spinach, pinenuts, tomatoes and chicken for lunch, or even knocking up bacon, eggs and mushrooms.

No sugar coating – being prepared when sugar calls

If you are hopelessly in love with sugar, then getting real about sweet snacks, pop and desserts is going to be particularly tough – even without starting on the hidden sugars which may be pervading your diet.

Some experts suggest that this is all the more reason to go cold turkey as without a strong approach you may not manage to break the cravings. But be prepared as you may go through a period of withdrawal symptoms - before coming out the other side feeling marvellous.

Don’t let yourself get too hungry. Make nuts and seeds your new best-friend and snack on a handful whenever you start to feel a pang. Swap sugar-laced desserts for a portion of cheese and oatcakes. And when you think about food, make nourishing your body your focus, rather than simply giving it a quick ‘hit’.

There are times when sugar stares us in the face. We all know these occasions: looking at the array of chocolate in a petrol station, pick n mix in the cinema, when someone is pushing cakes at work, or walking down the ready-meal aisle when you’re tired after work. Pre-empt these situations and in your mind reinforce your commitment to over-riding temptation.

So get real about your diet and be mindful. If the vast majority of your diet is based on real food, it should be a pretty nutritious, balanced and sugar-light picture – and then the odd guilt-free sweet treat may be enjoyed from time to time. But if you constantly give in to sugar, you may only be cheating your own health.

The sugars on everyone’s lips

Usually when we talk about dietary sugar, this isn’t only a reference to the stuff we put in coffee or tea (sucrose) – but to a whole family of simple carbohydrate molecules characterised by their sweet taste.

These simple carbohydrates are molecules comprising one or two sugars. Whilst they share some common characteristics, different sugars act differently in the body and their impact on your health may differ.

Here is the low-down on a few:

Glucose

Glucose is a monosaccharide, the simplest form of carbohydrate. Most of our dietary carbohydrates become glucose when the body digests them – this includes some of the other simple sugars and complex carbohydrates such as starches, the long chains of sugar found in starchy vegetables, grains and legumes. When we talk about blood sugar we’re talking about glucose.

Fructose

Fructose is also a monosaccharide. It is one of the main sugars found naturally in fruit – however, for most people, their fruit intake is not its major dietary source. Most fructose in the western diet comes from added sugar, in various forms. Table sugar or sucrose, for example, is half glucose and half fructose.

When found in natural whole food sources such as whole fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and proteins, fructose is delivered alongside other sugars, fibre and a range of nutrients, which affect its digestion and absorption. The intake of naturally occurring fructose from an unprocessed diet is relatively low – although once fruits have been processed, canned or dried, this changes or concentrates the sugar content.

High fructose corn syrup

This is the sugar that gives all other sugars a really bad name. HFCS is comprised of a refined form of fructose combined with glucose for a super quick delivery system into the blood stream. You find it in soft drinks, sweets and nearly every processed or ‘fake food’ found in a packet.

With HFCS, the glucose content will raise blood sugar and the high fructose content, whilst not actually raising blood sugar, will favour fat formation and is linked to obesity. The high amount of fructose can also fail to stimulate the production of the hormone leptin which gives the brain the ‘I’m full’ signals – so it’s also dangerous territory for over-eating.

What about honey?

Honey was probably the first naturally occurring sweetener that we added to food and drink. However, back then we probably didn’t eat it very often at all. Honey is one to watch because it combines high quantities of fructose and glucose. It’s a treat but, depending on your overall sugar load, it may be best not to make a habit of adding dollops to your toast, yoghurt or porridge regularly.

Sugar – not so sweet

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Sugar is getting a bad rap in the press at the moment – and quite rightly so. Its dominance in the food industry is fundamentally undermining the nation’s health, and ‘quitting’ sugar should be on everyone’s list of New Year’s resolutions.

Sweet poison

Sugar is linked to most of the major health issues affecting the nation today – obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, brain function deterioration, even cancer.

So, cutting sugar may help safe guard your long-term health and is likely to have a positive impact on your current health goals too - whether they be improving energy levels, losing weight, lifting mood swings, strengthening the immune system or addressing hormonal imbalances, amongst others. Research also suggests it contributes to the aging process – and as the beauty industry well knows, we all aspire to have great skin.

If you only do two things for your health this year, make one to work on reducing sugar, and make a fitness focus the other.

So how addictive is it?

Some scientists may argue that sugar is not officially an addictive substance - as compared to drugs, alcohol (also sugar laden) and tobacco. However, clinical and anecdotal evidence suggest behavioural similarities and many self-confessed sugar addicts will tell you they can’t deny their cravings and they wait for the next pick-me-up, swinging between high and low energy and becoming grouchy or ‘wilty’ when they’ve not had their fix. Purging the stuff can also temporarily lead to withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue, irritability and headaches.

Even if you don’t feel that you have a physical dependence on sugar, there may still be a fair chance that you, like the average Britain, is consuming an average of 93g or 24 teaspoons of sugar a day – some experts suggest that's as much as five times the amount the human body is designed to metabolise. So, how can that be good for you?

Where sugar hides

Cutting sugar isn’t just about axing the sweet treats and fizzy drinks. It means getting savvy about the less obvious sources. If it’s the product of a factory, there is a good chance the manufacturer has sweetened it up – this includes baked goods, cereal bars, ready meals, commercial sauces, dressings and some ‘health foods’ such as low fat products and flavoured yoghurts and milks.

Unfortunately natural sources of sugar should also be kept in check as sometimes this is where teaspoons of fructose can be too easily racked up, compromising an otherwise sugar-light diet. Dried fruit, tinned fruit and honey are amongst the worst offenders. Tropical fruits such as bananas, mangos and melons have a higher sugar content than strawberries, blueberries and apples which originate from cooler climates.

It’s worth noting that all carbohydrates break down to sugar in the body eventually – but when we’re talking about sugar in this context, we are primarily talking about foods high in simple short chain sugars - the ones that favour fat deposition or can spike your blood sugar. Making good carbohydrate food choices is another blog post!

You are probably asking yourself, what could my diet look like without sugar and how practical it is to avoid? Watch this space, as I will be writing about how to successfully cut your sugar intake and tips to help curb the sugar draw.