The truth about sugar

It’s that time of year when we make our ambitious new year’s resolutions to never drink alcohol again and to live on kale forever more.

Many of us have spent decades religiously monitoring the fat content of food and opting for low fat spread, low fat yoghurts and pretty much everything else. Fat has for a long time been heralded as the main reason for weight gain. Now there is a new bad guy in town. Sugar.

The sweet stuff has not been far from the headlines throughout 2015. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched his campaign to introduce a sugar tax through his documentary ‘Sugar Rush’ and has made a series of recommendations to David Cameron about how to tackle childhood obesity.

A recent study found that Britain spends a massive £47bn on the health and social care costs associated with obesity.

Davina McCall published her own sugar free recipe book and Australian Sarah Wilson launched  ‘I Quit Sugar for life’, a book full of ideas for detoxing from a western sugar-fuelled diet.

This all comes as unbelievable, new research from Public Health England has shown that children consume their own body weight in sugar each year. These are shocking figures no matter what your view on the sweet stuff. Sugar has been linked to serious diseases such as diabetes and more recently cancer.

Some believe a tax on sugar would put pressure on the food and drink industry to reduce the amount of sugar in food, as well as creating a budget to help educate future generations on the risk of a sugar-laden diet.

We all know that eating a bag of Haribo washed down with a can of coke for our afternoon ‘snack’ is not good for us.

Many of us will be familiar with the 3pm crash that comes when the highs of all the sugar wear off. Often though, we are not aware of exactly how much sugar we are consuming. For example most people would be surprised to know that some fizzy drinks have around 10 teaspoons of sugar each.

It is the hidden sugars that can really surprise you. Sugar is contained in nearly all processed foods, even savoury and seemingly healthy ones. Wholemeal bread, tinned soups, tomato ketchup and cereal (even the plain ‘healthy’ cereals.) When most of us think of sugar, we think of the granulated kind that we add to our tea but it is contained in many products that we wouldn’t expect. Often when checking the ingredients on the packaging it is not easy to work out what the actual sugar content is.

It can be quite difficult to visualise how much 1g of sugar is and this means we are less likely to be able to spot the worst offenders. An ingenious new app called ‘Sugar Smart’ has been launched by Change4Life to solve this issue. The app enables users to scan the barcodes of thousands of food products and instantly displays how much sugar it contains in cubes. This makes it much easier for everyone to make informed choices.

So we know that it is not healthy to eat cake all the time and it certainly doesn’t do our waistlines any favours. But what else does it do to our looks?

Beauty expert Kirsty Jewson from Saks Hair & Beauty has worked in the industry for two decades. Here Kirsty explains the damage sugar can cause to our appearance: “There is documented evidence to support links to skin conditions such as acne and ageing with a high sugar diet, who would have thought that the daily chocolate bar and can of soda is wreaking havoc on your skin functions!

A high sugar diet accelerates skin ageing by a process known as glycation. The sugar reacts with proteins in our bodies (the most vulnerable to damage are collagen & elastin, the protein fibres that keep skin firm and supple) to form toxic molecules, which damage adjacent proteins and in our case damage the protein collagen & elastin. Therefore resulting in a skin that is less supple, radiant and more susceptible to sun damage. My mantra is that the skin is an organ and not a face and is therefore an outer reflection of our inner health.  Lead a healthy lifestyle and your skin will reap the rewards!”

So where do we start? Is the answer to go cold turkey and give sugar up all together? Why do we feel the need to eat so much of the stuff in the first place?  There is extensive anecdotal evidence that sugar is extremely addictive and has been likened to a drug addiction.

People on a high sugar diet can experience withdrawal symptoms when cutting down, although there is debate amongst experts about whether sugar is actually addictive.

It is proven that when we eat sugar our body releases dopamine; the body’s ‘happy hormone’ which gives us a feeling of pleasure. This can mean that people use sugar as a means to deal with emotional problems and stress.

There also seems to be mass confusion about what actually counts as sugar. Some experts recommend using honey, agave, and stevia as alternatives. Others suggest these have the same impact on blood sugar levels and can still lead to obesity. Sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin, which are contained in many foods and drink are condemned by some who believe them to have carcinogenic properties. Cancer Research explain that this is not scientifically proven and that it is unlikely that one food alone could be the cause of cancer.

If we put all of this information against the political backdrop involving a multibillion pound sugar industry, it goes some way to show the controversy that can be behind food and in particular sugar. It is not just our skin which takes the brunt of sugar addiction. David Fairlamb has been a personal trainer for 20 years. He says: “After 20 years as a personal trainer I believe sugar is the number one cause of obesity. In fact I call it white death it’s that bad. It’s addictive and as soon as you eat refined sugar it sets your insulin off therefore you crave more food, in particular sugar. This can lead to obesity and it’s also linked to diabetes, cancer and tooth decay to name a few.”

There seems to be no end to the negative influence that sugar has on the body. So we wanted to find out the positives. What will get better when we cut out sugar?

David told us: “The benefits from eliminating refined sugar from your diet are endless the main one is weight loss. Any excess sugar will eventually be stored as fat and most people have no idea of the huge quantities of hidden sugar they consume per day, cut this processed sugar out and the weight will begin to drop quickly.

“Healthier skin, hair, nails and general feel good factor will also be apparent pretty quickly. Energy levels will increase and the slumps that most people have in an afternoon should disappear. In other words the sluggishness should decrease from your day.”

The one problem that many of us have with New Year’s resolutions is that we are unrealistic.

David explained: “We are creatures of habit, therefore small changes in your daily routine will make a big difference e.g. if you consume 5 cups of coffee per day with a sugar in each that’s 35 sugars a week, 140 per month or 1,680 per year. Cut this out of your daily routine and you will drop weight plus all of the other benefits previously mentioned. This is just cutting sugar in coffee. If you look at two other areas where you consume sugar every day and cut them out the results will be even more dramatic. It’s about small changes in lifestyle but they need to be consistent.”

He also believes that the sugar tax could be a positive step if it is used in the right way. David says: “I believe the sugar tax would really benefit this and the next generation as it’s estimated that it would raise around 1 billion pounds a year. As long as this money is used to educate children in schools and also to fund NHS programmes, I believe it will be a big step forward in helping the obesity crisis and the NHS with other sugar related diseases in this country.”

He admits that it can be challenging when making lifestyle changes: “Will power and a consistent change in lifestyle is probably the hardest thing about quitting sugar over a period of time. Also when you allow yourself an occasional treat make sure the old habits don’t creep back in.”

If you would like more information about the impact of sugar on your health or how to reduce your sugar consumption the Change4life Sugar Smart website is a great source of information.