‘Hello, my name is [insert your name...yes you!] and I am an addict!!.’ Although it’s an addiction less commonly acknowledged, it’s certainly an addiction that is widespread, unwittingly affecting millions without their conscious admission. From weaning infants, to seasoned retirees, and everything in between.
What the @#$%!! I'm gonna say the "S" word. SUGAR!
Well duh, I hear you say as you have recently cut back from two sugars, in your three coffees per day, to one. However, this sweet, yet sinister, somewhat scary substance is almost everywhere...hidden in plain sight.
In recent years, more light has been shed on the subject as there has become more and more scientific correlations between processed sugar and the drastic rise in chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Documentaries such as The Truth About Sugar, and That Sugar Film, have been instrumental in helping paint a clear and honest portrait of how invasive sugar has become across the food spectrum.
Now, let’s start by saying that not all sugars are created equal, and not all sugars are inherently bad. However, added sugars and hidden sugars are the greatest culprits in causing drastic health complications and are something that many of us are not aware. Sugar is by no means only bad for your teeth! Health organisations including the World Health Organisation (WHO), NHS, and other Governmental programs, are now strongly advising we cut back on processed and refined sugar to only 5% of your daily calorie intake. This equates to roughly seven sugar cubes (30g/7-8 tsp). Children should have significantly less – no more than 19g/4-5 tsp a day for children aged 4-6 years old (five sugar cubes), and no more than 24g (six sugar cubes) for children aged 7-10 years old.
So then, what now? If almost 70% of all packaged and processed food contains added sugar, how do you get away from it? Added sugar is in our condiments, yoghurt, cereals, bread, and even "healthy" granola bars! Terms such as 'Low-Fat' might mean higher added sugar to compensate for taste and substance. 'No Added Sugar' can mean no extra sugar in addition to the copious amounts already existing within, or sugar has been substituted with an artificial sweetener, which is equally bad if not worse. Even if getting away from it is not the problem, staying away is the bigger and more pressing issue. Sugar provides an immediate chemical 'high' within the brains 'reward centre'. Dopamine is released as the 'feel good' hormone much like it would during sex and exercise. The brain becomes desensitized to sugar and begins to crave more, leading to overconsumption and a dependance. What's worst is, many of the products are aimed at children, providing high calories but very little nutritional substance.
Where do you begin in taking steps to become aware of hidden sugars and reduce their intake. Step One is Acceptance! Accept that it is a grave problem within our society to the uneducated (not those with a lack of schooling, or who don't read the news/books....but more those who are not aware), and it could be a big problem for you, your family, and your health if left unchecked.
Note that hidden sugars are named in a variety of terms which may pass by to the untrained eye. Believe it or not, there are at least 61 different names for sugar on food labels. I don't expect you to memorize them all by any means but here's a couple tips: Put down anything that ends in “-ose” like Sucrose, Maltose, and Dextrose. Look out for Maltodextrin, Carob Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, and even other buzzwords like Nectar, Cane and Sweetener. Be also mindful that even natural sugars, like Agave or Honey, still contribute to your daily sugar limit. If sugar (or any of these terms) is in the top 5 ingredients, consider it a treat, and not a nutritious food.
The good thing is that many of these are found in heavily packaged and processed foods. Now you know what to look out for, that’s the easy part! Where it gets sneaky is in the marketed health foods. The aisles of products cleverly designed to attract the health conscious and more nutrition savvy consumers. Even there, you will find breads, energy bars, pasta sauces, salad dressings, dried fruits, juices, smoothies all containing high amounts of added sweeteners. ‘Uuugh! I hear you say. So even the healthy(er) food is unhealthy?!’
So what now? Well first take a breath, and realise if you've gotten this far then you are armed with some knowledge that may just change your thinking and shopping habits. Now take a moment and think about how your grandparents ate. Our ancestors would get most of their foods locally, and fresh. Almost everything was cooked or baked daily, and more often than not it was all done from scratch in the kitchen by hand. No deep fat fryers and no microwaves (although I'm not suggesting you ditch the microwave)! The ultimate goal now, is to take more ownership of what is going into the body and how it was made. To be a conscious consumer for your own health and that of your family. To create easy, whole food based meals that are both nutritious and energising. It's not about avoiding sugar completely, but instead eliminating the high volume of added and hidden sugars that was in your daily diet unknowingly.
For some quick and actionable steps, start with these:
Use Natural Sweeteners (in moderation) such as Raw Honey, Pure Maple Syrup, Stevia, Dates, or Coconut Sugar
Avoid cravings by consuming more healthy fats such as Avocado, Nuts, and Nut Butters. Include Seeds, Olives, Flax Seed, Chia Seed, Edamame, and Tofu, to stir-fry's, salads, or as breakfast toppings.
Limit sugar intake at breakfast by opting for steel cut oats, fruit, seeds, eggs and veg, or a smoothie
Put down the store-bought snack bars. Choose fruit, nuts, avocado crackers or boiled eggs!
Make your own sauces, smoothies, and juices. Be in control of the ingredients from start to finish! Let food inspire your creativity!
Are you a choc-a-holic? Replace high sugar milk chocolate with a dark chocolate alternative. 1-2 squares of 70% or above dark chocolate can take the edge off your sweet craving and is the better option.
The first step to change is becoming aware. The second is taking action. Sugar addition is likened to that of drug addiction. It’s not an easy parting, but begin one day at a time! Your overall health, energy, and wellbeing will be positively inspired!