How to cut down your average sugar intake
Many of us eat a lot more than the recommended sugar intake. Here’s how to eat less sugar without giving up your favourite sweets.
For most of us, sugar is part of our everyday diet. But research shows we’re enjoying it too much. According to the latest National Nutrition Survey, our average sugar intake is 14 teaspoons or 60g of free sugars daily.
That 14 teaspoons are more than two times the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended daily sugar intake of 25g (6 teaspoons) of free sugar. The majority of our free sugar intake comes from added sugars with an average of 52g (12 teaspoons), with the remaining free sugars coming from honey and fruit juice.
While the dietary guidelines for Australians don’t provide an exact figure for sugar intake, they do recommend “limiting intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars such as confectionery, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sport drinks”.
Both of these recommendations focus on added sugars or free sugars, not natural sugars. So, what’s the difference?
The difference between natural, added sugars or free sugars
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that comes in different forms. It can appear naturally in foods such as fruits (i.e. fructose) as well as in milk and milk products (i.e. lactose).
Sugar in the form of fructose, dextrose, lactose, sucrose and sugar syrups likes glucose syrup can also be added to foods and drinks by manufacturers during processing.
Chefs and home cooks alike also add sugar when cooking or at the time of eating. These types of sugars are referred to as ‘added sugars’.
The term ‘free sugar’ extends the definition of added sugars to include sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. So, while your fruit juice counts towards your free sugar intake, your piece of fruit does not.
What’s the recommended sugar intake?
To reduce the risk of negative health effects, WHO recommends adults reduce their daily intake of free sugars to 50g (less than 10% of their total daily energy intake).
Added health benefits can also be found if daily sugar intake is further reduced to below 25g of free sugars per day (less than 5% of their total daily energy intake). But it’s important to note this guideline doesn’t include sugars found naturally in fresh fruits, vegetables and milk, as no evidence exists of any negative effects with their consumption.
How much free sugar am I eating?
It can be tricky to know just how much you’re eating. While you can easily gauge how many teaspoons of sugar you add to your coffee or pasta sauce, it’s difficult to know how much you’re eating in processed foods.
That’s because the nutrition information panel on a food label refers to all sugars (both added and naturally occurring). While there are the obvious sources of added sugar like chocolate, cakes and soft drinks, a lot of the sugar we consume today comes hidden in processed foods like bread, sauces, yoghurts, salad dressings and breakfast cereals.
That’s why it’s important to look at food labels. Ingredients on labels are listed in order by descending weight. Sugar can be listed under many different names – glucose, sucrose, golden syrup, maltodextrin, maltose, dextrose or disaccharides, just to name a few.
If you see any of these on the ingredients list, the food contains added sugars and is contributing to your daily intake of free sugars.
Sugar and your health
Sugar found naturally in food comes mixed with fibre and other nutrients. Your body digests it slowly and a steady supply of energy is provided to your cells.
Your body reacts to free sugars differently, responding with a rapid spike in insulin levels, which can have negative effects on health over time as well as other side effects.
Research shows that body weight increases with the amounts of free sugars consumed, and with excess weight increasing the risk of health complications like high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine found an association between a high-sugar diet and a greater risk of dying from heart disease.
Excess sugar intake also overloads the liver and over time can lead to a greater build-up of fat, which may turn into fatty liver disease. And fatty liver disease may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Having too much sugar is also bad for your teeth and oral health and research shows it’s better to consume sugary food and drink over a shorter period than to repeatedly expose your teeth to them over a prolonged period of time.
What does the recommended daily sugar intake of 25g look like?
Here’s a guide to keep your sugar intake down:
Breakfast: Porridge made with rolled oats, linseeds, sunflower and almon meal (LSA) and milk, topped with dollop of plain Greek yoghurt, banana and 1 tsp honey (6g of free sugar)
Morning Snack: Plain Greek yoghurt with fresh berries (0g of free sugar)
Lunch: Honey and soy chicken thighs with brown rice and mixed salad with lemon vinaigrette (12g of free sugars)
Piece of fruit
Afternoon 30g mixed nuts (0g of free sugars)
Dinner: Grilled salmon with dill risotto and asparagus, carrot and beans (0g of free sugars)
Dessert: 2 squares of 70% cocoa dark chocolate (6g of free sugar)
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