The benefits of reducing your sugar intake

Do you remember your first cup of tea?

I do! (Well at least I think I do.) If my memory serves me correctly I tasted my first hot, sweet cup of tea as a really young child. Unless my memory has distorted the event, I think my first ever cup of tea was very strong and very sweet and enjoyed in front of the fire at my Scottish grandparent’s house in Greenock, Scotland. I think I had Scotch pancakes with it too, but then again I also have memories of there being a mountain behind the house that we used to run around on which in reality was probably just a hill, perhaps my love of the Sound of Music has influenced that memory slightly! I also recall going in to a sweet shop to buy Irn Bru (was that originally only sold in Scotland?) and being the centre of attention with my sister because we had English accents “Hello bonnie lasses, wow you’ve come all the way from England!”

Anyway I digress, so my point is I think my first cup of tea had sugar added to it, forty-odd years ago, so it’s probably no surprise that I have always had sugar in my tea. The amount has varied over the years, at one point I took 3 sugars!! Ugh can you actually believe that. Most recently I have cut down to between three quarters of a teaspoon to a whole teaspoon, depending on the size of the cup.

There are some studies that suggest that sugar is one of the most addictive substances on this planet. There does appear to be a fine line as to whether it is physically addictive in the same way as tobacco or alcohol or whether it is a psychological addiction. Many people crave sweets or chocolate (me included!) and eating something sweet feels like a little treat. Who else craves chocolate or just a little something sweet after they have eaten their evening meal? I do and it’s not because I’m hungry it’s because chocolate tastes so damn good! I’ve gone through stages of telling myself “it’s fine I’ll just have one square,” and on occasion I have managed that but more often than not once you’ve had one square and got the taste for it, it’s a slippery slope.

Why is added sugar bad for us and where is it hidden?

We all know that sugar isn’t great for us. Consuming excessive amounts of sugar can lead to weight gain, heart disease, diabetes and tooth decay. We all need some sugar in our diet but it’s choosing where this sugar comes from that’s important. Sugar occurs naturally in many different foods, for example fruit, but these food types also have the added benefit of vitamins, fibre and other necessary nutrients. Refined sugar, that we add to food or drinks, is also added (before we buy it) to everyday processed food – including sweets, chocolate, cakes, biscuits, cereals, flavoured yoghurts and fizzy drinks and surprisingly you will also find sugar, where you wouldn’t expect to, in savoury food such as pasta sauces, salad dressings, pizzas, marinades and ready meals.

This kind of puts it in to perspective doesn’t it? We are all consuming so much more sugar than we think, even if we aren’t deliberately adding it ourselves. You deserve it to yourself to do what you can do to be the best you, that’s something that you can control.

How much sugar should we have a day?

The government guidelines are that all types of sugar should make up less than 5% of our daily calorie intake each day. It is recommended that food such sweets, cakes, chocolate, biscuits etc, containing free sugars, are the types of food that we should cut back on. According to the NHS website, the actual guidelines are:

  • Adults – no more than 30g of free sugars a day (7 sugar cubes.)
  • Children aged seven to ten – no more than 24g of free sugars a day (6 sugar cubes.)
  • Children aged four to six – no more than 19g of free sugars a day (5 sugar cubes.)
  • There’s no guideline limit for children under the age of four, but it’s recommended that they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it.

From a personal point of view, considering that I could have easily consumed 5 cups of tea a day with a teaspoon of sugar in each cup, that’s almost my daily limit without taking in to consideration any chocolate, sweets, desserts or cakes.

I probably wouldn’t have made any changes to this if it wasn’t for a friend of mine asking me to do a 5 day sugar-free challenge with her. It’s considerably easier if you do something in a group as it gives you motivation, support and also a bit of accountability; which is always important when you are trying something that you might otherwise struggle with. This was great set up actually, there was a WhatsApp group so people could share meal ideas and give encouragement. The mentor also shared recipes and meal suggestions, plus gave tips and tricks to help with the sugar cravings.

In hindsight I don’t think I ate as healthily during this week as I should have done and I know I ate food such as baked beans, which ridiculously, I realised after the event, contains sugar. The ingredients in the tin of beans lists sugar as the fourth highest quantity – after beans (51%) tomatoes (34%) and water. Half a tin of baked beans contains 9.8 grams of sugar, which is about a third of the recommended daily maximum. They are also a source of protein and fibre though and low fat which is a good thing. It’s certainly made me think about buying low-sugar and low-salt varieties next time I shop.

I would definitely say that the past few days has been a win for me, despite eating some food with hidden sugar. I have not had a single grain of sugar in any hot drinks this week. At first I thought drinking tea with no sugar would be disgusting so I prepared for this by drinking tasty fruit/herbal teas. My ‘go to’ for the week was a peach and orange tea with citrusy baobab. My alternative herbal tea was raspberry and lemon, with a hint of rose petals. The nutritional information for both of these is 2 calories, 0 fat, 0 carbs and 0 sugar and they tasted amazing! I also drank white tea with milk and no sugar and I can honestly say once I’d got over the initial shock of a different taste after about 3 or 4 cups I started to prefer the taste of tea without sugar. I’m not trying to preach or convert anyone but it’s so much more refreshing and you can taste the tea rather than the sugar. This morning I accidentally put sugar in my tea and it didn’t taste as nice so I ended up throwing it away and making another cup. I’ve now put the sugar pot in the cupboard to avoid making that mistake again.

Naturally sweet and refreshing herbal tea makes a great alternative if you find tea without sugar difficult. (Image: Pexels)

I also feel that doing this challenge has made me rethink my relationship with sugar and sweet treats, particularly chocolate. Initially I thought I would have a problem resisting the chocolate in the fridge and the chocolates that we still have lingering in the house that are left over from Christmas. However I did manage to stay strong and although I craved chocolate on occasion, I managed to not cave in. I really hope that this will be long term and that I have broken the sugar-trap a little. I was offered cake on two occasions during the week, literally offered it on a plate, once at home and once at work – and I was able to politely refrain. I – actually – said – NO – to – cake! At work I was also offered a bowl of delicious home made apple crumble and custard, in fact the bowl was handed to me and it was screaming EAT ME but again I was able to politely say no and I trotted off and made myself a sugar-free cup of tea instead. Another small change I have made is swapping fruit juice/squash for water. For someone who automatically would opt for orange or other flavoured squash rather than water, I thought this would be tricky, but I’ve got used to it now so I’m guessing my palate has slightly changed.

So overall even though I didn’t follow the challenge to the letter, I feel great and I know if I can stick with this it will be a way of improving my health.

Try drinking water instead of squash, fruit juice or carbonated drinks. (Image: Pexels.)

So what are the benefits of cutting down on the amount of sugar in your diet?

  • You will feel healthier.
  • You will lower your blood pressure.
  • You will reduce the risk of a heart attack.
  • You will lessen your chances of being affected by diabetes.
  • You will probably lose a little bit of weight.
  • You will improve your dental health.
  • You will help to reduce the chances of Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

Easy changes you can make:

  • Try and switch to lower-sugar cereals for breakfast,such as Weetabix, porridge or Shredded Wheat. Alternatively have poached eggs on toast, or avocado or mushrooms or tomatoes on toast, or perhaps fresh fruit and plain yoghurt (Greek yoghurt contains more protein.)
  • Try rice cakes or oat cakes instead of biscuits as a snack.
  • Opt for water rather than squash or fizzy drinks.
  • Try and cut down the amount of sugar you have in tea or coffee. An alternative would be to try herbal or fruit teas, these are really refreshing and contain no sugar. A slice of lemon in hot water makes a refreshing change.
  • Try and make your meals from fresh ingredients, rather than opting for ready meals or processed food. You will then know there is no sugar in the food you are preparing.
  • If you fancy a dessert after dinner, try fruit with plain yoghurt, you could always try a baked apple with some sultanas to make it feel more special.
  • If you really want to have chocolate or biscuits as a special treat, aim to have these as an occasional treat, you will look forward to this more than having treats daily as a habit.

I hope this article helps you, particularly if you are considering reducing the amount of sugar in your diet. Remember it’s important to consume a balanced diet and even if you find reducing sugar difficult, all things are ok in moderation!

If you have any other meal swap or small change ideas I would love to read them.

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