Without question, if you are tucking into a tub of Häagen-Dazs, a packet of Skittles, or a slice of pavlova, you are consuming a hefty serving of added sugars.
However, the sweet stuff can creep into everyday foods without us realising it, even in products that appear ‘healthy’. It is easy to over-consume, and our palates adjust to expect hyper-sweet tastes.
Like populations of many countries, Australians surpass the recommended limit of 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for free and added sugar intake. The concern with this is too much can lead to serious health consequences.
Many of these products are also marketed as ‘healthy’, making awareness of the presence of added sugars and reducing intake more challenging. If you are going to eat added sugars, you want to know you are eating added sugar, not have it hidden beneath the veil of fancy product claims!
To learn how to keep free and added sugar intake to a minimum, we are here to help you out.
Check out our tips for reducing your intake of the sweet stuff.
Top tips for reducing intake of added and free sugars
Understand added vs natural sugar
Learn the difference between added sugars and those naturally occurring in whole foods. Added and free sugars are ingredients the manufacturer, cook, or consumer adds to food or drink products. Free sugars also include juices (and concentrates), honey, and syrups. Intake of added and free sugars should be limited. Naturally-occurring (a.k.a. intrinsic) sugars are found in whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy. They are bundled with other nutrients such as water, fibre, vitamins, and minerals, which are beneficial to health and a normal part of a healthy diet.
Read the label
Reading product labels, check the ingredients list for the many names for added sugars, and the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) for total sugar content. Remember that 4.2 grams of sugar is 1 teaspoon, and we aim to limit added sugar intake to 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day. More broadly, food products considered ‘low sugar’ contain 5 grams or less of total sugar per 100 grams.
Shop from the supermarket perimeter
Whole foods are generally found in the supermarket perimeter and should comprise the majority of your daily diet. This includes fresh produce, such as vegetables, fruit, seafood, eggs, dairy, and meat. Supplement with whole food pantry staples and freezer items such as nuts, seeds, beans, tinned fish, good quality olive oil, and frozen veg. By doing this, you’ll limit – or even avoid – ultra-processed foods, added sugars, and other products and ingredients that aren’t great for health and devoid of beneficial nutrients.
Eat mostly real, whole food
If the majority of what you consume each day is real, whole food, you are already eating a low-sugar diet. There is little room left for the heavily processed, sugar-laden stuff! Have fun in the kitchen by playing with ways to make food flavourful sans added sugars. But if you occasionally have something packaged, highly processed, or loaded with added sugar, do not be hard on yourself. Enjoy it in the moment and eat something more nourishing for your next meal.
Enjoy fibre, healthy fats, and protein
To help sugar curb cravings, include whole food sources of fibre, healthy fat, and quality protein at each meal. Think avocado, almonds, and free-range eggs. Such foods will leave you feeling fuller for longer and stabilise energy. This reduces the likelihood of reaching for a sugary fix for a quick pick-me-up later on.
Occasional processed and sugary food is okay
Our bodies are incredibly resilient. Remember this when you find yourself having some added sugar. While some feel better off not having any at all, a little won’t break the health bank for most! Listen to your body and find your balance. If you feel like dessert when out with friends or a biccie at the occasional workplace afternoon tea, enjoy the moment for what it is. It is more important to keep too much added sugar from insidiously creeping into your diet each day.
Avoid sugary drinks
The quickest and easiest way to reduce added and free sugars is to kick the sugary drinks. Replace a bubbly soft drink with plain soda water infused with fresh citrus slices or berries with fresh herbs or spices such as basil or cinnamon. And if you really want a juice, enjoy one that is freshly pressed and watered down.
Stress-eating is common, and often we reach for sugary foods for a mood boost. Instead, undertake a stress-relieving activity that suits you, such as a guided meditation, deep breathing, a stroll, a yoga class, or having a cup of tea with a mate who makes you feel good.
If the body isn’t adequately hydrated, we can feel hungry, foggy-headed, or low in energy. This increases the likelihood of eating more food or reaching for foods and drinks high in added sugars for a quick boost. Instead, grab your (reusable) water bottle and enjoy some H2O!
Be kind to yourself
If you have a little more of the sweet stuff than intended, ditch the guilt (the stress around this can be just as damaging as the not-so-great food choice) and, as mentioned above, make the next food choice a nourishing one!
Let’s be sugar smart
Overall, we want to reacquaint ourselves with the subtle sweetness found in whole foods, such as sweet potato, fruit, and spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. But if you are going to use a sweetener, use sparingly and choose one that is minimally processed.
We aren’t here to tell you how to stop eating added sugar or to cut out sugar completely (though that is okay if having no free or added sugar works for you, or eating a diet free of added sugars is prescribed for a medical reason). For most, know that a little is fine.
The aim is to increase awareness of where added sugar hides and reduce intake overall. Why? It is the excess consumption of added and free sugars, along with the processed and packaged foods it often comes in, that contributes to poor health.
For your health, keep an eye out for added and free sugars, limit intake to 6 teaspoons (25g) per day. And above all, be kind to yourself!
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut Med)