Sugar is by far one of the most popular foods – from the flavour it gives to its practicalities during food processing and production. In fact, it’s so popular that it can be all too easy to eat too much! Currently, the NHS and World Health Organisation both recommend that free sugars should make up no more than 5% of your total energy intake (calories) a day – shockingly, in reality that figure is way higher with the UK population consuming, on average, 100g of sugar every day (the NHS recommends 30g!).
As humans, we are designed to have a preference for sugary, sweet foods – after all, these were seen as ‘safe’ foods that we could indulge on. Not only that, but sweet foods have played an integral role in celebrations for centuries! Weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, Christmas, Easter, other religious holidays – these all are celebrated with sweet foods – Let’s be honest, when was the last time you went to a birthday party that didn’t have cake? Even smaller wins like getting to your goal weight or finally getting that promotion are normally celebrated with some form of sweet.
As amazing and delicious as sugary foods are, it is important to listen to the guidelines set by various health organisations and consider if we are eating too much and where that sugar is coming from. The NHS and World Health Organisation say that it’s the free sugars (added sugars, fruit juices, honey, syrups etc.) we need to cut down on and not the natural sugars (found in fruits, vegetables and milk). Overeating these free sugars has been linked to so many health risks including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, tooth decay and other inflammatory conditions. In short – we eat too much and it’s time that we re-evaluate what role sugar plays in our diets.
Whether you’re eating a chocolate bar, drinking a glass of orange juice or enjoying a sweet, juicy apple, you’re still eating sugar. So many foods contain sugar from pasta sauces and tinned soups to biscuits and cake – but wherever you’re getting that sugar from, more likely than not, you’re still overloading your body and your cells with it. In fact, there are so many hidden sources of sugar, sometimes in the most unlikely of places, that it can be hard to track just how much you’re eating!
However, although sugar is still sugar – it does matter where the source of that sugar comes from. When we eat natural sugars (those found in whole fruits, vegetables), the release of the sugar into our blood stream is slower due to the fibre found in these foods as well. This not only means we avoid those blood sugar and insulin spikes, but they also keep us feeling fuller for longer. Plus, these foods come with added benefits like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are essential for vibrant health.
Don’t punish yourself when you eat sugar. It’s important to remember balance and moderation when it comes to your diet and what you put into your body. Cutting down on sugar isn’t about restricting yourself as that’s what creates an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s not about demonising certain foods as that too will create an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s about understanding what you’re putting into your body and making the best choices possible. Balance is key when it comes to anything sustainable – without balance, you’re more likely to binge, have cravings or even ‘give up’.
Depending on your goals, I suggest that indulging once or twice a week can actually be healthy – as long as these indulgences are small, meaningful and practised with mindful eating. At the end of the day, on average, you have 21 meals in the week and maybe 14 snacks – so if you eat healthy, balanced and nourishing foods most of the time, eating one or two indulgent meals here and there won’t affect you too much.
Be kind and gentle with yourself and don’t punish yourself if you have free sugars.
Eating a lot of sugar creates spikes in blood glucose which can lead to burn out, brain fog, hunger, cravings and crashes in energy levels. It’s so important to balance every meal so that your body is getting all the macro and micronutrients it needs to thrive.
Fill up most of your plate with non-starchy vegetables (around 2 cups is ideal), then fill the rest of your plate with a palm sized portion of protein and a cupped handful of carbohydrates. You can also add a small serving of healthy fat (a thumb size) if it’s needed, but keep in mind how much fat you use to cook with before adding extra fats to your meals/snacks
I don’t believe in restrictive dieting. I do believe in focusing on fueling our bodies with nourishing foods. Crowding out is the concept of focusing on adding in more nutrient dense whole foods so that our focus is redirected away from what we’re not supposed to eat. Most of the time, when we think about cutting certain foods out of our diet, they become the only foods we think about! Instead, shift that focus to adding in more of the good foods so that the ‘not so good’ foods naturally crowd themselves out. When it comes to reducing your free sugar intake, here are some guidelines on what to eat more of and less of.
There will inevitably be times when you know you will be eating sweet treats ie: birthdays, holidays, family gatherings, dinners etc. The key here is all about being prepared! Meal planning and meal prepping are two amazing tools that have the power to transform the way you eat. They allow you to actively prioritise making food that will nourish your body and give you the time you need to prepare healthier swaps and alternatives. In short, these two tools help you to make those healthier choices as your food is readily available and prepped to reduce the stress around meal times and celebrations.
If you know that you’re going to be faced with sweet indulgences, then plan ahead and prepare your own alternatives so that you’ve got your own healthier treats to indulge in.
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