This week is Sugar Awareness Week! Woop woop! Ok, so probably not something particularly big or exciting on many people’s radars, but still a very important event, especially as we all start to become more “sugar aware” these days.
Still, I feel like “sugar awareness” is something that is really difficult and often not important enough to many. But seriously, it can only help!
When I first came off sugar, I was shocked by how much my supposedly “healthy” diet was crammed full of it, and I think many people are still very surprised when they find out the amount of sugar they’ve consumed in a day. So how can we figure out how much we are really consuming? And what can we do about it?
Learn to read labels
In an ideal world, it would be easy to find out how much sugar was in a product. You would glance, see how many teaspoons it contained and how much of a percentage that would be of your recommended daily allowance (RDA), free sugars would be specifically marked, there would be warnings on high-sugar products, and portion sizes would be accurate. Sadly, this is not the case. Learning how to sift through the often highly confusing nutritional information on things you buy is very important if you are trying to follow a healthy lifestyle.
There are several things you need to know for this:
- Sugar has many many names. Check out a list here.
- Free sugars (and the RDA the World Health Organisation gives of these) include fruit juice, honey and syrups. We personally also include dried fruit and dates in this, as well as canned fruit that has been kept in fruit juice or syrup, since all of these things are considerably higher in sugar than fresh fruits and can cause serious dental problems in particular.
- Portion sizes often underestimate. Have you ever actually measured what 30g of cereal is? Let me put it this way: 2 tablespoons weighs 30g. No one, I repeat, no one eats just 30g of cereal!
- You often need to work it out individually to be sure you aren’t going too much over your RDA of free sugars, but a general rule is: if there is more than 5g sugar per 100g and the ingredients list more sugar names than fresh or frozen fruit, then it is most likely too much, unless you are using tiny tiny amounts at a time
- Finally, the easiest way to save time on label reading and still avoid sugar? In the words of Sarah Wilson, J.E.R.F. (Just Eat Real Food). If it doesn’t come in a packet with a label (ie: fresh fruit & vegetables), it’s probably safe. If it only has one ingredient that isn’t sugar (ie: meat/fish/eggs – just make sure it’s organic/wild or at least free range – wholegrains, porridge oats, Shredded Wheat, etc), it’s probably safe (just remember that if the one ingredient is “juice” or “syrup”, that’s still sugar!)
Learn the most surprising sugary goods (ie: “healthy” or “no added sugar” foods)
It’s highly frustrating that a lot of products that actually have the words “healthy” or “no added sugar” or “no refined sugar” or “100% fruit“, etc stamped across them can be some of the worst culprits! Often, if a food is having to convince you it is healthy, it’s not. In my supposedly healthy pre-sugar-detox diet, I found some of the worst offenders were:
- Shop-bought smoothies
- Fruit/flavoured yogurts
- Low fat products
- Baby & toddler pre-prepared foods (especially things like “Yo-Yo bars”)
- Cereal bars
- Recipes labelled “no refined sugar” that contained a lot of honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, dates, fruit juice or dried fruit
- Tinned soups
- Savoury foods that have been pre-prepared
You may by this point find yourself a little shell-shocked by the amount of sugar you or your family are taking in (I was amazed to find I was eating 3-4 day’s worth of sugar every.single.day!). Don’t panic! Just follow some simple steps:
Learn what 6 teaspoons a day really looks like
The World Health Organisation recommends a maximum of 6 teaspoons of free sugars a day for adult women, 9 teaspoons for adult men, 3 teaspoons for children aged 4-11, and as close to 0 teaspoons as possible for children under 4.
But what does 6-9 teaspoons of sugar actually look like? Well…
…1 teaspoon is about 4g (divide grams by 4.2 to find out how many tsp exactly)
…1 tablespoon is about 3 teaspoons
…Rachel’s Organic Low-Fat Vanilla Yogurt (450g) has just over 14 and 1/2 teaspoons of sugar in the pot. A portion pot size is 150g. That makes it almost 5 teaspoons of sugar per portion.
… Nestle Shreddies Cereal (750g), often perceived as a “healthy” option, has 27 teaspoons of sugar in the packet. The product contains 4 different types of sugar. They reckon a portion is about 40g, which has 3 teaspoons of sugar. But most people have at least 50g and some even have more than one bowl at breakfast, let alone throughout the day!
…Nature Valley Crunchy Bars, Oats & Honey (5x42g). Each portion of these “healthy” cereal bars has 3 teaspoons of sugar.
…The suggested 125ml (small) serving size of YooMoo Frozen Yogurt (Strawberry) rings in at over 4 and 1/2 teaspoons of sugar.
…Each teaspoon of Sainsbury’s Creamed Horseradish Sauce has over 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Sugar is listed in the ingredients before horseradish! And since most of us have at least 1 tbsp, it becomes nearly 2 teaspoons per portion.
…Sainsbury’s Baked Beans in Reduced Sugar & Salt sounds like a healthy option right? Except this “healthy” option has nearly 2 teaspoons of sugar per serving. Just imagine if it wasn’t the “reduced sugar” version!
…Jam (like this Bonne Maman one) on your toast in the morning is usually about 60% sugar, so over 1/2 teaspoon for every teaspoon of jam you use.
…Of course, the famous healthy drink option is juice. Well, Tropicana Smooth Orange Juice has more than 5 teaspoons of sugar per glass (250ml)!
…And what we feed our children isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s even worse. The recommended 30g serving of dried apricots contains 2 and 1/2 teaspoons of sugar, and the famous “healthy” Yo-Yo Bars for Kids have 1 teaspoon per snack. Not to mention fruit loaves which contain 1 and 1/2 teaspoons per slice!
…And finally, we all know the benefits of dark chocolate, right? Only often bars lower than 50% cocoa are still labelled “dark”! Take, for example, Sainsburys Basics Dark Chocolate, which is 53.5% sugar and so contains over 2 and 1/2 teaspoons sugar per 3 pieces (20g). Compared with Sainsburys Fairtrade 85% dark chocolate which has only 1/2 a teaspoon per 25g bar.
Some of these may not sound like a huge amount, but once you’ve had a few of them in your day, you can see how quickly they add up, so it’s really good to be aware of these things. I think the cakes (over 4 and 1/2 teaspoons for a small slice of this chocolate cake) and doughnuts (over 2 teaspoons in this iced ring) and Haribo’s (47% sugar) are the obvious culprits and so we are usually (not always) careful to keep them as rare treats, but so-called “healthy” foods that are full of sugar are a different matter, and we tend to eat them throughout our days without batting an eyelid or taking a minute to read the label on them simply because we assume they are good for us!
Slowly reduce the amount of sugar in recipes
Gradually reducing the sugar in a family favourite recipe is a lot less noticeable than cutting it completely, and allows you and your family to slowly adapt your tastebuds to less sweet foods. However, you may find that for some people (particularly people with an addictive personality, or people in denial about the amount of sugar in foods as I was) it is necessary to cut it out completely for a bit (see below) in order to break a sugar addiction.
Make smart swaps
Some of my favourites are:
- Full-fat plain yogurt or sugar free coconut yogurt for fruit yogurt
- Plain full-fat cow’s milk or unsweetened dairy free milk for flavoured milks
- Coconut water, infused water, sparkling or still water, or full-fat milk for juice
- Unsweetened coffee or tea or cacao powder and cinnamon mixed with warm milk (and stevia or xylitol if not sweet enough for you) for flavoured coffees, sweetened hot drinks or hot chocolate
- Occasional homemade smoothies for shop-bought ones (breaking down the fruit does speed the sugar release, so while a homemade smoothie is better than juice or shop-bought smoothies that usually contain juice, it’s still a treat to be had only a couple of times a week maximum!)
- Plain croissants for sugary breakfast muffins (check the amount of sugar if you can, but these are usually less than 1 teaspoon sugar per croissant, and made better if served with a little good fat – small piece of bacon or cheese for savoury, yogurt or nut butter for sweet – and fibre – some leafy greens for savoury or some fresh fruit for sweet – in order to slow down the absorption of sugar)
- Whole fresh fruit and a small handful of nuts or, better yet, vegetables of any kind for pre-prepared (usually high sugar) snacks
- Marmite (check the label as I’m told that Marmite outside the UK often contains sugar – Vegemite should be ok though!), mashed avocado, sugar free nut butters or sliced/mashed fruit on toast for jam, Nutella or marmalade
- Homemade baby purees for shop-bought processed ones (I recommend starting with vegetables as it encourages a love of savoury – trust me, sweet is pretty much guaranteed and there is no vitamin, mineral or nutrient you can get from fruit that you cannot get from vegetables!)
- 85% minimum dark chocolate instead of white, milk or “dark” chocolate less than 85% (still sugar, but only a tiny amount!)
Do a Sugar “Detox”
In my experience, this is the number 1 way to halt your dependence on sugar. I had tried cutting back on sugar before, but had never thought of giving up things like fruit (or even some free sugars) for a brief period, and was surprised when I still couldn’t quite break my need for sugar!
The I Quit Sugar 8-Week Program was the only thing that finally stopped my addiction. It’s not a “detox” like anything you’ve come across before. You eat like a king for 8 weeks while watching your health improve and your sugar addiction cease. My tastebuds changed drastically after the process, and for the first time in my life I didn’t have a “sweet tooth”! And in the grand scheme of things, giving up sugar, sweeteners and even fruit for just 4 weeks of the 8 wasn’t all that hard and changed my life for the better! Even if you are not convinced (as I wasn’t when I started), most people recognise that it is most definitely not going to hurt to eat that well and nutrient-dense for 8 weeks!