SWEET treats are driving our obesity epidemic, says Chris Mantle, so try to make informed choices about what you eat
Sugar has been in the news a lot lately, and with good reason. While saturated fat is now thought to be not quite as unhealthy as it once was, it is still bad for our hearts and waistlines if we eat too much. However, experts around the world now believe sugar is also driving our worrying obesity and diabetes epidemics.
At Edinburgh Community Food we run cooking and nutrition courses around the city, such as in Leith, Craigmillar and Wester Hailes. We help people to get healthy balanced diets by teaching simple, no-nonsense nutrition and by providing the skills and confidence to cook from scratch on a budget. Sugar is a regular topic of conversation in our groups.
Soft drinks and energy drinks are very popular and cheap, with some drinking two or more litres each day. A huge array of popular foods – from breakfast cereals to ready meals and takeaways – has lots of added sugar. National surveys show that we Scots are eating and drinking too much of the stuff.
Sugar is a type of simple carbohydrate and carbohydrates, whether table sugar, pasta or wholemeal bread, are broken down in the body to give us glucose. Glucose provides us with energy for our muscles, for our brains, for life. Without it we wouldn’t get very far. Despite the fad for low or zero carb diets, wholegrain complex carbohydrates (eg wholemeal bread or oats) are very good for us indeed, supplying – as well as energy – lots of vitamins, minerals and heart and bowel-healthy fibre. Sugar, however, is pure energy with no nutrition: it is “empty calories” and because it doesn’t fill us up it is very easy to over-consume. There is only so much glucose our bodies can store and use. The problem with sugar is that if we over-indulge the excess is turned into fat and, as we know, fat stores can grow and grow, causing overweight and obesity. Sugar consumption can, of course, also lead to tooth decay and diabetes.
Currently, the recommendations are that women should consume no more than 50 grams (or roughly 10 teaspoons) a day and men 60 grams (or about 12 teaspoons) a day. While this may sound like quite a lot, a typical 500ml bottle of a soft or energy drink contains about 52 grams. However, the World Health Organisation is now recommending that we halve the targets to just 25 and 30 grams a day. Yet we are surrounded by sugary foods in a myriad of forms. What can we do? Reducing the amount of sugar we consume is vital for our health but how can we go about it?
Read food labels. Watch out for those high in sugar and try to eat less of them. Beware, however, that sugar has many names, including high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, malt, dextrose, honey, molasses, sucrose, and many more.
Use the traffic lights system on food packets – go for “green” for sugar. Watch out for low or zero-fat dairy products – they may have lots of added sugar. Cook from scratch so we know exactly what’s in our food. Avoid soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit juices and go for water, milk or herbal teas.
Reduce the sugar added to teas and coffees. Always go for whole fruit rather than fruit juice. Choose low sugar wholegrain breakfast cereals or porridge.
But it is not just sugar that we should watch out for. White bread, rice and pasta can cause all the same problems as sugar and while they do contain some nutrition it’s not much. Along with reducing sugar, one of the best things we can do for our health is switch from refined carbohydrates to the wholegrain types. Wholemeal bread, brown pasta, brown rice and oats not only provide great nutrition and lots of fibre but also help us to maintain a healthy weight. Make the switch today – you won’t regret it.
• Chris Mantle is senior food and health development worker at Edinburgh Community Food