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Sugar – don’t forget the big picture

When it comes to healthy eating, so much is about context. I’ve been reminded of this in the wake of the recent Nigel Latta documentary on television about sugar.

View the documentary here. In the show, Latta highlighted the abundance of sugar in our food supply, and the potential harm this is doing to our health. He showed the heart-breaking reality of the thousands of toddlers who require general anaesthetic to have decayed teeth removed every year. And he made the link between sugar and obesity and related diseases. This clearly resonated with a lot of viewers.

In the same show, Latta went through the supermarket showing how much sugar is in various foods, including obvious things like cereal and less obvious ones, like Marmite. I’ve had some correspondence from readers, alarmed at this, declaring they are clearing their cupboards of all the sugar and tossing out the Marmite along with anything else with sugar in the ingredients list.

It’s certainly a good idea to keep an eye on the added sugar in your diet. That’s because it’s often in highly processed foods, many of which are not ideal for our health. In these foods, sugar comes packaged up with other things that are not good for us, like saturated fat and salt. And some foods, like sweet fizzy drinks, are really just sugar delivery systems which none of us really need at all. Sugar can also lurk in foods where you wouldn’t expect it to be. Peanut butter, tomato sauce, bread, stir-fry sauces – they all contain sugar, sometimes at quite high levels.

The idea of ‘quitting sugar’ has had a lot of airtime in the past year or so, and there are certainly people who’ve made careers and presumably a lot of money out of this idea. I don’t have a problem with this – it’s a simple message and if it gets people eating a little bit healthier, that’s good. But I do have a problem with the direction some of the more extreme advice in this area might lead vulnerable people.

If cutting sugar from your diet means you replace the processed sugary foods with whole, fresh, healthy foods like vegetables and fruit (I don’t think fruit should be demonised for its sugar content), that is great. It can only be a good thing for your health. But if the desire to cut sugar leads to obsessive thinking – checking every label, being preoccupied with what is and isn’t ‘allowed’ – then I question whether that is good, healthy or sustainable long term. One of the things that really breaks my heart is when (non-allergic) people talk of food in terms of what they can’t eat.

And don’t forget context. Yes, that jar of Marmite contains seven teaspoons of sugar. But no-one’s eating the whole jar in one sitting! There’s less than a fifth of a teaspoon of sugar in the smear on my toast. I can live with that, just like I can live with the delicious (small) piece of sweet slice I ate this morning for a colleague’s birthday.

Likewise, don’t be fooled by ‘no added cane sugar’ treats. Just because something doesn’t have white sugar in it, doesn’t make it calorie-free, or a health food. I’ve seen recipes for ‘raw’ and ‘natural’ cakes lately, full of cashew nuts, dried fruit and coconut oil, which pack a meal’s worth of energy into a slice. So remember the context and if you’re going to enjoy these things, remember they’re still a treat.

Part of enjoying life is finding a balance that works for you. If the ‘rules’ of your diet stop you from doing things or enjoying life in a normal way; if you find yourself asking “Am I allowed to eat that?” – it’s time to re-evaluate.

If you’re looking for more on sugar, check out these articles from previous issues of Healthy Food Guide:

  • What sugar does in your body (HFG April 2013)
  • How much sugar in your cereal (HFG March 2014)
  • How to stop sugar cravings (HFG May 2014)
  • Should sugary drinks be taxed? (HFG June 2014)
  • No-added sugar sweet treats (HFG June 2014)
First published: Sep 2014



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