Sugar. We all know we consume a little bit too much of it, but what are the actual health concerns that come with eating more than our recommended daily allowance? And how can we cut down our family's intake without the kids kicking up a fuss?
We sat down with nutritionist Angelique Panagos to discuss sugar, its effects on the body, and simple, easy ways to reduce your family's sugar consumption.
Angelique says: “We need to be looking at a lifestyle that's going to serve our families long-term. By making changes regarding our daily sugar intake now, we can set our children up with a healthy understanding of, and a good relationship with food for the rest of their lives.”
Scroll on to discover Angelique's top tips below.
How is sugar bad for us?
"In terms of the effects they have on the body, refined sugars, refined carbohydrates and sugary syrups raise our blood sugar levels. When we eat any food, our blood sugar levels naturally rise - but only up to a certain point. Refined sugars raise our blood sugar levels beyond this, causing a spike in insulin release.
“This is where the issue of too much sugar comes in - too much insulin can have a negative effect on the body. When it's overused, our bodies can become resistant to insulin, resulting in health issues such as Type Two Diabetes.
"What we're seeing now, unfortunately, is a rise in childhood obesity, tooth decay and a rise in childhood type 2 diabetes as a result of the amount of sugar in our day-to-day diets.
"And it's not just physical effects either - refined sugars and carbohydrates have an effect on our attention span - especially for young children. A sugary breakfast often leads to a shorter attention span for the rest of the day, which can affect their concentration at school.
Is all sugar bad for us? Are some sugars worse than other sugars?
“There are two types of sugar: intrinsic and extrinsic sugars.
"Intrinsic sugars come as a *part* of a whole food, for example, an apple, or a sweet potato. These foods come with a whole host of other things, like fibre and nutrients, and also give you a sense of "fullness" that stops you from digging into three apples after your first, unlike chocolates or sweets. We wouldn't necessarily eat 10 apples or five sweet potatoes in one go.
"Extrinsic sugars, on the other hand, are refined sugars like fructose syrups, glucose syrups or granulated sugars. These are the sugars we need to watch. Refined sugars are made by extracting the natural sweetness from fruits and vegetables without absorbing any of their nutrients or benefits. Not only are they void of nutrients, but we're also consuming them in much larger amounts because they're so refined.”
What about honey, agave and maple syrup?
“Don't fall into the trap of replacing one type of sugar with another. Honey, maple syrup and agave nectar all fall into the “extrinsic” sugar category. Yes, these naturally-occurring sugars have traces of nutrients, which makes them preferable to straight-up refined sugar, but they are still pure sugar. If you're replacing one or two teaspoons of caster or demerara sugar on your porridge with a tablespoon of honey, that's not a smart swap.”
What are the worst suspects when it comes to “hidden” sugars?
"What many people don’t realise is that sugar comes in many forms – not just the white or brown crystallised stuff you buy for baking and to put in your tea. All white carbohydrates - pasta, bread, flour – convert into sugar. Starchy white carbs like these get broken down into sugar very easily when they enter the body.
“If you're starting your day with white bread, jam, a glass of cordial and some fruity yogurt, you're probably having an awful lot of sugar just in your breakfast alone. Instead, opt for wholemeal toast instead of white toast, low-sugar granola or porridge instead of sugary breakfast cereals, and natural yogurt with berries instead of fruity-flavoured yogurts for a more filling breakfast that will set you and your family up properly for the rest of the day.”
What are some easy swaps I can make at home?
“Jarred sauces and ready meals contain a surprising amount of refined sugar. If you want to reduce the ‘hidden’ sugar in your family’s diet, your best option is cooking from scratch. Bolognese, curries, soups and pasta sauces are all easy to cook using fresh ingredients, and there are plenty of super easy recipes you can follow online. That way, you know what's going into the food. If you're short on time, try cooking in big batches and freezing some for later to save time at a later date.
Here are two of Angelique's top swaps:
- Bulk out your carbs like rice or pasta with veg. Butternut squash noodles made using a spiralizer are a brilliant addition to spaghetti and pasta sauces. Not only do you get the nutrients and fibre from the veg, but squash is also naturally sweet - a really good way of weaning fussy easters off that sweet taste.
- Switch to wholemeal - brown pasta, brown rice, brown bread, wholemeal flour - is also a brilliant and super easy swap for the whole family.
What about low-sugar snacks?
"One area where many kids tend to consume vast amounts of sugar is through snacking. Fruity yogurts, biscuits, crackers and yogurt-coated fruit are all high in refined sugars.
"When your kids want a snack, offer them a healthy option AND a ‘sweet’ option, for example an apple or a glass of milk and a piece of chocolate for afterwards. Once they've finished the apple, they can have the chocolate. What you're doing is you're trying to keep the blood sugar levels balanced.
"You can also try peanut butter on an apple with some cinnamon, or a stick of celery filled with almond butter. Nut butters are low in sugar compared to jam or chocolate spread. They’re also much more filling thanks to the natural fats which will help to keep kids fuller for longer.”
How can I teach my fussy eater the importance of a balanced diet?
“The best way to encourage your kids to eat a balanced diet is to properly explain why their favourite sugary foods and drinks aren't ‘everyday’ foods.
“I often do talks at schools to show them how much sugar is lurking in their food and drink. I bring a bowl of sugar and I ask the kids to measure out how many teaspoons of sugar they think are in some of their favourite sweet foods, like a can of cola.
“They are always so shocked at the amount of sugar there is in a single can, and so I think visual activities like this are a great way to show kids how much sugar is hiding in many common foods. Kids’ brains are like little sponges – they’ll lap up this information and you’ll be surprised how it stays with them. What’s more, turning it into a visual activity makes it enjoyable for everyone, too!
“There are plenty of visual activities like this you can do at home to really demonstrate the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet to children. It’s this intrinsic understanding that will help to set them up with a healthy, balanced diet for the rest of their lives.”