A healthy diet is made up of many things. But one thing experts agree upon is that here in the UK we eat far too much sugar. According to the NHS, British people eat 700g of sugar a week, or an average of 140 teaspoons per person. Whatever way you look at it, that’s an awful lot of sweetness.
So what is the recommended amount of sugar we should be having in our diet? In 2015, the recommendation changed. Since then, we’ve been advised to have an average sugar intake that makes up no more than 5% of our total calorie intake (this is half the previous recommendation).
NHS experts claim this 5% is the equivalent of about 30g of sugar a day for most adults – that’s around 6 teaspoons a day (though depending on your total calorie intake it could mean 5 or 6 teaspoons for the average women and 7 to 8 for the average man). According to the charity Action on Sugar, this is the equivalent of a small glass of fruit juice and a flavoured yoghurt per day.
The new recommendation is for what government advisors from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition have termed ‘free’ sugars. Free sugars are all the types of sugar added to foods by manufacturers, cooks and consumers, as well as sugars in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. It doesn’t mean sugars found naturally in fruits and vegetables, or the sugar found in milk and dairy products called lactose.
Sugar by any other name
Confusingly, free sugars have many names – most of which you can spot on food labels – such as:
- Corn syrup (and other syrups such as agave syrup, date syrup, rice syrup etc.)
- Hydrolysed starch
- Barley malt
- Invert sugar
Even more confusingly, most food labels currently list the total sugar content of a food, rather than how much of a food’s sugars are present naturally and how many are added (that is, free sugars).
Sugar and your health
The new lower recommendation for free sugars intake is the result of strengthening evidence that eating too much sugar is bad for your health.
For starters, eating too many sugary foods and drinking sugar-sweetened soft drinks has been linked to weight gain in both adults and children.
Diets high in sugar have also been linked with an increase in the number of people developing type 2 diabetes, a condition that’s associated with complications such as kidney disease, eye disease (including blindness), amputation, depression, sexual dysfunction, dementia and pregnancy complications.
And as everyone who has ever paid attention to their dentist also knows, sugars in food and drink play a major role in the development of tooth decay.
If you have a sweet tooth, cutting down to the recommended 6 to 8 teaspoons of free sugars a day may be challenging. So here are some tips that may help:
Start as you mean to go on
Make the first meal of your day a healthier one by swapping high-sugar breakfast cereals for low or no-sugar foods such as unsweetened porridge or plain wholewheat cereal biscuits.
According to the NHS, this could help you cut 70g sugar from your diet in just 1 week. But if you still crave sugar at breakfast time, try adding some dried fruit or a sliced banana to your porridge or cereal.
Wherever possible, choose diet versions of soft drinks or try sprucing up some still or sparkling water with slices of cucumber, sprigs of mint, lemon slices or berries and crushed ice.
Watch out for hidden sugars
Many foods that we don’t associate with being sweet can contain a surprising amount of sugar, such as pasta sauces, ready-made soups, ketchup and salad dressings – even shop-bought bread can contain more sugar than you realise.
So try to get into the habit of checking food labels when you’re shopping. They may not reveal how much added sugars are included (only total sugars), but they can help you compare different products so you can choose those with the lowest amounts.
Also watch out for low-fat foods as these often contain high amounts of added sugars. For instance, some lower-fat yoghurts can be sweetened with refined sugar, fruit juice concentrate, glucose or fructose syrup.
If you really must have something sweet, be fully aware of how much you’re eating and savour the flavour by eating slowly.
Switch to lower-sugar snacks
Many of us find our healthy eating resolutions fall by the wayside when it comes to snacking. But there are ways of swapping high-sugar snacks with lower-sugar versions, for example, have a low-calorie instant hot chocolate drink instead of a bar of chocolate, oatcakes instead of sugary biscuits, or a natural yoghurt with added fresh fruit instead of a sugar-sweetened yoghurt.
Also try keeping some low-sugar snacks on you when you’re out and about in case hunger strikes when you’re away from home.
Take things slowly
If you want to stick to eating less sugar in the long term, make the change gradually, as trying to cut out everything sweet in your diet overnight is likely to have you heading to the biscuit tin by lunchtime. In other words, try to be realistic when you make a change to your diet – there’s no need to go straight from eating cakes and biscuits on a daily basis to munching on nothing but pumpkin seeds.
For more tips, recipes, and resources to help you promote your physical wellbeing, visit our physical wellbeing microsite.