Helen Bond: Sprinkling of sense in the sugar debate

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HEALTHY eating and activity in our diets has become an increasingly important and, for some, prominent, part of our lives.

You would be forgiven for not knowing what’s best to eat or drink, as we’re constantly bombarded with differing information about what constitutes a healthy diet and lifestyle. It can be difficult to have clarity and this is particularly true for sugar. For example, a study published in the journal Obesity states that cutting sugar can dramatically improve heart and circulatory health in just 10 days. Despite only being a small study amongst 43 obese children and uncontrolled, it only adds to the confusion and means that consumers could be uncertain about how much sugar they should be eating, if any at all?

The challenge of tackling the obesity crisis, for children and adults alike, is complex. While reports published by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and the World Health Organisation make a compelling case for reducing ‘free sugars’ to improve our nation’s health, there is no single solution, and focusing on just one ingredient risks oversimplifying the issue.

One of the most common questions I’m asked is whether sugar can play a part in a healthy, balanced diet. The simple answer is: yes, it can and when it comes to obesity and heart health, it’s very important to consider it within the context of the overall diet and lifestyle.

Sugars are carbohydrates that provide energy for the body. The most common sugar in the body is glucose – found in fruit, vegetables and honey – which your brain, major organs and muscles need to function properly. Sugars are also an important source of energy that we all need to go about our daily lives. Along with other sources of energy, our brain requires around 130 grams of sugars (glucose) per day to keep functioning.

There are different kinds of sugars. People normally think of sugar as the product we see in our kitchen cupboards; what we put into our tea or added when we cook – this is sucrose. But there are other sugars that are found naturally in foods (e.g. fruit, vegetables and milk). What you may not know is that whilst these natural sugars also come with a host of different vitamins, minerals and fibre – different sugars, added ‘free’ or ‘natural’, are broken down and used by the body in the same ways.

The most recent research from Making Sense of Sugar found that over 40 per cent of people in Yorkshire and the Humber thought that there was such a thing as a good and bad sugar. This isn’t really the case and, in fact, what we should be focusing on is what a balanced diet looks like.

You should be choosing most of your food from the four main food groups: fruit and vegetables; bread, rice, potatoes and other starchy foods; lean meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein; milk and dairy foods. Put simply, if you’ve had a very active day, you will have burnt off more energy (calories) than if you’ve had a day on the sofa.

Perhaps surprisingly, despite over a third (41 per cent) of respondents from Yorkshire and the Humber understanding that sugars can provide the body with energy and can be eaten as part of a healthy balanced diet, 92 per cent believe that sugar (e.g. table sugar) is hidden in products. This proves that clear education (and not confusing reports) are needed to ensure people are making the right decisions when it comes to eating healthy, balanced diets. Firstly, if a food product contains added sugars it will be listed in the ingredients list. The second place you’ll be able to find out about sugars is on the nutritional information panel – look for ‘carbohydrates – of which sugars’ as this is the total sugars in a product.

What’s more, many people are surprised by the fact that apart from fibre, sugar has no more calories than any other ingredient. On a gram for gram basis, sugars and starch, as well as protein, contain similar amounts of calories, while fat actually contains more than twice as many. In fact, whereas sugars are four calories per gram – the same as protein – alcohol is seven calories per gram and fat nine.

Together, we should try to advise people that it’s about lifelong healthy eating and active living, taking little decisions along the way that balance pleasure and moderation. This means recognising that sugars can play a part in a healthy and balanced diet, and giving people the right information so they are able to make informed decisions.

Helen Bond is a consultant dietitian to the Making Sense of Sugar campaign.