One of the biggest food and nutrition topics in the last few years is sugar. How much sugar is OK? What kind of sugar should I eat? Does fruit have sugar? Do I avoid all sugar? Is sugar essentially the food of evil? There have been so many questions and so much advice, some of which is conflicting, so it is no surprise that many are confused. From the Change 4 Life Sugar Swaps Campaign to the Sugar Tax, there is growing pressure to cut down on the amount of sugar that we consume. But how? Most of the advice that we’ve seen, whilst it suggests how to cut down on added sugar, it doesn't take into account nutritionally how best to consume sugar, how the body processes sugar and how to ensure blood sugar balance (aka avoiding the cycle of blood sugar spikes and dips). Whilst blood sugar balance may sound confusing and incredibly worthy, it is important for maintaining a healthy and balanced weight and stops the cycle of living from one sugar high to the next, with a whole lotta lows in between. Here are 5 top tips from our nutritional chef, Nena Foster, for eating less or better (nutritionally) quality sugar as well as learning how to enjoy the sweet stuff whilst avoiding the sugar highs and lows.
All sugar is certainly not created equal. Much like your starchy white carbs, sugar often begins its life with some additional nutrients. The refinement (and bleaching) processes take away the vitamins, minerals and fibre, leaving you with very little. Don’t get us wrong sugar is not particularly nutrient dense, but it is even less so when refined. Some natural sweeteners like coconut sugar and honey have a lower glycemic index than white sugar meaning it is more slowly digested and causes a slower rise in blood sugar. Try using unrefined sugars like molasses, coconut sugar, raw cane sugar, high quality honey, date syrup or other syrups like brown rice and coconut nectar. Another added bonus of unrefined sweeteners is that you get a much more subtle sweetness than you do with refined sugars.
Fruit sugars (fructose) is still sugar, but with fruit you also have the added benefit of the fibre from the skins and cores. Fibre helps to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream meaning you avoid the blood sugar spikes. So if you’re craving something sweet try adding a bit of fruit or using things like baked apple or pear puree, banana, dates or other fresh or dried fruit. Even vegetables like parsnips and carrots as well as adding spices like cinnamon, anise and cardamom can help to add sweetness.
Chances are you don’t need 300g of sugar to make it a cake or you wouldn’t think of adding nine teaspoons of sugar (the amount often in a single serving of many popular breakfast cereals) to your bowl of cereal (or would you?!). When cooking or baking, in most cases you can cut the amount of sugar down considerably and still end up with a pleasing result. Start by cutting down 25% of the sugar indicated in a recipe. And, where possible, if you’re buying ready made products try to buy those with natural sources of sugar and/or options with less sugar. Try your cuppa with one (instead of two) sugars or swap to a unrefined natural sugar like (see point 1 for options). As well, look for options, like sauces, that contain less sugar and ensure that the sugar is not just replaced by artificial sweeteners as these trigger the same type of insulin response as sugar.
Swapping kimchi for cake may seem like misguided suggestion and a wholly inappropriate swap, but research has shown that consuming fermented foods helps to reduce sweet cravings by helping to balance blood sugar. How does this work? Well, many fermented goodies are full of our fab friend fibre, and again fibre is good preventing the blood sugar troughs that usually send you reaching for the packet of biscuits. The process of fermentation also utilises the natural sugar in fruit and veg as a food source for the bacteria. Essentially, these little microbes eat or metabolise sugars, leaving a lower sugar product. So whilst consuming less sugar, you’re also putting in healthy bacteria, which thrive in a gut supported by a low sugar, high fiber diet.
Low glycemic index (GI) foods are foods that release glucose at a slower rate because they take longer to break down in the intestine. Examples include sweet potatoes, green apples, berries of any kind, pulses, whole grains and oats. Occasionally swapping higher GI for lower GI foods can mean opting for sweet potato over white potatoes, berries over bananas and brown rice over white. It is also important to consider the glycemic load (GL) when choosing foods as this takes into account the amount of carbohydrate in a serving and can be a more practical way of choosing lower sugar foods.
And always, ALWAYS read labels to check out the sugar content in any products that you’re purchasing. Don’t just assume because it is vegan/gluten free or even branded as ‘healthy’ that is low in sugar. And chances are, they’ve not splurged on unrefined sugar and you can bet there is more than arguably needed to ensure product appeal to the mass market. Last, remember the magic formula: Sugar+fibre+good fat+protein= A much better way for your body to process process sweet foods, keeping your blood sugar on a even keel.