It’s official: we are a country of sugar lovers. According to a 2023 YouGov poll, the nation’s favourite snack is a KitKat, with McVitie’s Chocolate Digestives, Magnums and Galaxy bars also making the top 10. And we will be piling into the sugary toppings now that it’s Pancake Day. But while enjoying sweet treats in moderation is fine, excessive sugar consumption can significantly impact our health.
Sarah Schenker, a registered dietitian and the author of My Sugar Free Baby and Me, explains: “Over time, too much sugar can lead to a greater accumulation of fat, which can lead to fatty liver disease. It also means the body has to produce more insulin to control your blood sugar levels, which can increase the risk of diabetes.
“Too much sugar has also been linked to increased blood pressure and chronic inflammation, both of which are linked to heart disease.”
In the UK, it’s recommended that free sugars (those that are added to foods, rather than occurring naturally, like in fruit) make up no more than 5 per cent of our total energy/calorie intake. For the average adult that’s around 30g a day, for children aged 7-10 it’s 24g, and 19g for 4-6 year olds (1 teaspoon of sugar is 4g). According to the British Nutrition Association, the current average intakes of free sugars are approximately twice the recommended level.
And there are other health reasons to cut down on sugary foods, as Bahee Van de Bor, a registered dietitian and media spokesperson for The British Dietetic Association, cautions: “Foods high in added sugars often lack essential nutrients, which means they provide energy without the necessary vitamins, minerals or fibre that our bodies need for optimal function. This can lead to a diet that’s lacking in overall nutritional value, potentially causing deficiencies in the long term.”
But simply cutting down on sugar isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Sugars are added liberally to all kinds of pre-packaged foods, often without us realising it. Even savoury foods like pasta sauces, canned soups and bread products can have a surprising amount of added sugar, but by being more “sugar-aware” we can effectively slash our sugar intake.
Train your palate not to have sugar
Sugar causes the brain chemical dopamine to be released, resulting in a feeling of pleasure and wellbeing. Repeated activation of this reward pathway leads to a kind of tolerance, so we then need to eat more sugar to get the same pleasurable feeling. This is why sweet foods can be so addictive.
Thankfully, we can reverse the process. The results of a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that individuals who adhered to a reduced sugar diet had an increased perception of sweetness over a three-month period. What this means in practice is that your brain and palate adjust and are satisfied with less sugary foods.
Schenker has this additional advice for those wishing to cut down: “Wean yourself off cravings for intensely sweetened foods and drinks by using a combination of techniques such as going out for a walk, drinking more water and choosing snacks with a lower GI [or glycaemic index, the rate at which blood sugar is raised after eating a certain food].” Examples include dark chocolate, fruit and nuts.
Refrain from adding sugar to tea and coffee
Low-hanging fruit, when it comes to slashing your sugar consumption, is to reduce the amount of sugar you are adding to food and drink yourself, such as in tea and coffee. If you are drinking the UK average of 2-3 cups per day with 2 sugars in each, you could save 70g over the course of a week. And you don’t have to go cold turkey, as according to Van de Bor it’s best to cut down slowly.
“Consider making small changes over time. For instance, if you typically add two spoonfuls of sugar to your coffee or tea, try reducing it by half a spoonful until you get accustomed to enjoying it with less sweetness.”
Another quick win is switching from sugary spreads like jam or honey on toast to good-quality peanut butter, which has more fibre and no added sugar. And, if you are a home baker, Schenker advises seeking out recipes with a reduced sugar content, or those using healthier alternatives to sugar, such as fruit.
Avoid ‘low-fat’ foods
Since the 1980s, dietary guidelines in the UK have recommended limiting saturated fat because studies have linked it to an increased risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, when the fat is removed from food products, sugar is usually added back in to make them more palatable. A 2016 study found that the sugar content of low-fat foods was consistently higher than regular versions of the same foods, more than double in some cases, such as in salad dressings.
Rather than purchasing low-fat processed foods, try and make your own wholefood equivalents. For example, instead of buying low-fat fruit yogurts – one leading brand I checked contained 14g of sugar per 115g pot – switch to unsweetened plain yogurt and add mashed fruit for sweetness. Or make your own wholefood sweetener by blending up 200g pitted dates, 2 tsp lemon juice and 300ml water. Keep in an airtight container in the fridge and stir a teaspoon into your yogurt or porridge in the morning.
How to reduce sugar from processed foods
We’ve already established that sugar is hiding in plain sight in many of the processed foods we find on the supermarket shelves. The only way to avoid this particular nutritional pitfall is to get into the habit of checking food nutrition labels.
Schenker advises that we look specifically at the sugar content per serving in the context of the recommended daily amount of 30g, and be sure to read the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed by weight, so the higher up an ingredient is on the list, the more of it the product contains. If sugar, or its alternatives like honey, maple syrup, molasses, glucose, fructose and sucrose, are among the first few ingredients, it’s likely a high-sugar item.
She also recommends comparing different brands of the same product to find the one with the least sugar content per 100g. Sometimes, seemingly similar products can vary significantly in sugar levels.
Beware of ‘healthy’ snack foods
Another way we may unwittingly consume high-sugar items is by buying snack foods that purport to be healthy. Again it’s a case of buyer beware, as Van de Bor explains: “Snack bars that market themselves as nutritious can contain high sugar levels. They often use terms like ‘natural’, ‘organic’ or ‘light’ to appear healthier.
“However, flipping the package over and examining the nutrition label and ingredient list is key. Some of these bars might contain added sweeteners that seem healthier, like agave or date syrups, but which are still just added sugar.”
Snacks that will satisfy that sugar craving
Even with the best will in the world, there will be times when you need to scratch that sugar itch. These fibre-rich snacks will satisfy your craving without causing a big blood sugar spike, providing sustained energy until your next meal.
Peanut butter dates
Slice open a date, take out the pit, fill with a spoon of good-quality peanut butter and eat straight away, or keep in the fridge for those “I need sugar” moments.
Greek yogurt and berries
Spoon 2 tbsp of plain yogurt into a bowl and pile on the berries for natural sweetness as they are a great source of fibre and healthy antioxidants. Or heat up frozen ones in the microwave to make a simple hot berry sauce.
Two squares of dark chocolate and a few peanuts
If only chocolate will do, buy a good-quality bar that has at least 70 per cent cocoa solids and have two squares with a few peanuts. A grown-up Snickers bar, if you will.
Sweet and salty popcorn
Even though it’s largely air, popcorn is surprisingly filling because of the fibre. A 14g snack-size bag of sweet and salty popcorn contains less than half a teaspoon of sugar and nearly 2g of fibre.
A slice of wholegrain toast with mashed banana and cinnamon
A fabulous and filling high-fibre sweet afternoon snack when energy levels can dip. This will keep you motoring until dinnertime.
Quick chocolatey orange energy balls
Whizz up in a food processor: 200g pitted dates, 50g of nuts (whatever you have), 2 tbsp ground almonds, 1 tsp orange zest and 1 tbsp water. Roll into balls and coat with cocoa powder. Keep in the fridge and have one with your cup of tea instead of a chocolate biscuit.
Six ways to beat your sugar addiction