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Quitting sugar: the final frontier

Research suggests that we are eating more sugar than we ever have, but why is this and why is it so challenging to cut sugar out?



Drinking more water, cutting out caffeine, eating your five fruits and vegetables a day, restricting fat consumption, low carb/high protein intake and intermittent fasting. There are various diets and health habits that are popular these days, but there is one that seems to trump them all when it comes to difficulty: quitting sugar. 

Research suggests that we are eating more sugar than we ever have, but why is this and why is it so challenging to cut sugar out? Well, the simple answer is because it’s in almost everything we eat. From cereals and yoghurts to bread, added sugar is incorporated into lots of foods to enhance the flavour, texture, and to help preserve the food for longer. 

Naturally occurring sugars in our food are not necessarily the problem. For example, fruits, vegetables, and dairy often have naturally occurring sugars in them. However, these natural sugars are digested slower than refined sugar (often referred to as added sugar), keeping you fuller for longer and your metabolism stable. Compare this to refined sugar that is broken down quickly in the body, causing blood sugar levels to rise quickly. It is digested quickly which means you don’t feel full after eating it, regardless of how much you have eaten, often leading to overindulgence. Furthermore, refined sugars are often found in foods and snacks that have low nutritional value; artificial ingredients; and are high in calories, which and can be addictive. This is because refined sugar can stimulate a dopamine response (the feel good factor) in the brain and can lead to cravings for more. 

To address our unhealthy addiction to sugar we have to first look at how much we should be including in our diets. For adults, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 30g of sugar (approximately 5% of daily energy), but with your average chocolate bar having 25g of sugar or a can of coke containing a whopping 39g, this can quickly add up. Although these are extreme examples of snacks and drinks with high levels of added sugar, they are often the reality for large parts of the general population’s diet in developed nations. 

Regularly surpassing your RDA for sugar intake can lead to chronic illnesses and adverse health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, unsavoury skin conditions, tooth decay, and even cancers. And with these illnesses soaring in the western world, several of them are leading reasons for hospital admissions, particularly in the US and UK.  

But is this just a western problem? Not quite. China and India have the highest rates of diabetes in the world, which correlates to their problems with excessive sugar consumption. As it is cheap and easy to add refined sugar to a variety of foods to enhance their flavours and preserve them, many countries around the world are incorporating it within wholesale foods and diets. This is reflected in the levels of obesity in many nations, showing a gradual increase in obesity in both adult and child populations across the globe. 

So how can we limit our sugar intake? Here are some tips for helping to reduce your overall sugar intake: 

  1. Look at the sugar in everything! You will be surprised at the types of foods that contain sugar e.g. wholemeal bread, ketchup and canned soups. You can then start writing a food diary, noting everything you eat on a normal day, and highlighting how much sugar is in the foods you eat. Your sugar intake can then be compared to the RDA (30g) and you can now see how much sugar you need to cut back on to bring it to a recommended level or lower. At this stage it is important to remind yourself that if you are eating more than the recommended daily allowance of sugar, you will be more susceptible to the health related issues discussed earlier. 
  2. Try sugar free snacks and swap sugary foods with high added sugar for healthier sweet alternatives such as fruit. As mentioned earlier, fruit still contains sugar but in much smaller doses and it is healthier. The naturally occurring sugar from fruit will keep your energy and hunger levels balanced throughout the day. 
  3. Be aware of the initial side effects of cutting out sugar as there is a detox process. Due to our addiction to sugar, you are likely to suffer from some of the following side effects: fatigue, cravings, headaches, a depressed mood, and anxiety. This can last anywhere between five to 14 days. The good thing to know is that the side effects are short term and the long term benefits are likely to be worth the initial battle. 
  4. Be realistic. After calculating how much sugar you are eating in a day, don’t assume the best method is to go from 100 to 0. Cut back slowly, reducing you overall intake over the course of a few days or weeks.
  5. Drink more water. Fizzy energy and sports drinks contribute towards large portions of added sugar to western diets, so replacing these with water will help you cut back substantially. Drinking more water throughout the day will keep you fuller for longer and hopefully prevent you from reaching for the snacks as often. If you need a compromise, try replacing fizzy drinks with teas or sparkling water with a low sugar concentrated juice drink.

Although you may not notice the benefits of reducing your sugar intake initially, over time you will have reduced the risk of suffering from illness and inflammation, balanced your energy and blood sugar levels, and supported the upkeep of healthy teeth and gums. Some other perks are that you will likely lost weight, improve your skin, and reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol as well. 

Sugar consumption is a huge problem and reflects our struggles with maintaining a balanced and healthy diet of moderation. If you are struggling with your sugar consumption, take a leap toward a healthier life. There is no better time to try than today!

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

SEN Teacher working in Leicestershire. Completed my BA (Hons) at Durham University and postgraduate degree at Loughborough University. Pursuing an MA (Ed).