Five Ways to Reduce Sugar in Your Diet, Without Using Sweeteners
Sugar has become the new 'bad guy' in the world of food and drink, being blamed for causing illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Sugar consumption is also blamed for the rise in obesity in the UK and US. The majority of us eat large quantities of sugar on a daily basis, both consciously and unconsciously, thus scuppering our efforts to lose weight or maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Cutting sugar out of our lives altogether is not necessary (and is impossible, as sugars occur naturally in many foods, including starchy carbs), however, reducing how much processed sugar we add to our diet can improve our health and wellbeing, along with aiding weight loss.
This article provides five easy tips for cutting back on sugar, without even noticing the loss.
The NHS recommends that no more than 5% of your daily energy (calorie) consumption should come from sugar. This works out as no more than 25g of sugar per day (about six teaspoons) for women and 38g (nine teaspoons) for men.
Why Avoid Artificial Sweeteners?
When many people start a low-sugar diet, they will often switch from sugar to artificial sweeteners, opting for zero-sugar products and using sweeteners in their food and drink. Manufacturers promoting low-sugar products market sweeteners as a healthy alternative to sugar. The truth about sweeteners is not so clear-cut.
Over the last decade numerous studies have revealed that regular consumption of sweeteners does not stop people from becoming obese, developing diabetes or suffering heart disease. Some researchers believe sweeteners can be just as bad for your health as consuming too much sugar.
Equally, many people suffer from medical conditions that are worsened by sweeteners. Migraines and Irritable Bowel Syndrome are just two health problems that are aggravated by the consumption of sweeteners.
For more information on sweeteners and health concerns, along with links to scientific studies, check out my Hubpage - Five Ways Sweeteners Are Making you Sick.
Reducing sugar intake does not have to involve adding artificial sweeteners to your diet and this article will show you how.
One Lump or Two?
One of the subtlest ways people add sugar to their diets is through the consumption of sweetened tea and coffee. Daily recommendations are no more than six teaspoons of sugar for a woman and nine for a man. That can easily be consumed through six sweetened cups of tea or coffee, or fewer if a person has more than one teaspoon of sugar in their cup.
The solution is to gradually wean yourself off sweetened versions of tea and coffee. Before you groan and say that would make the beverages undrinkable, hear me out. I grew up in a family where tea was routinely served sweet, even to children. I also liked sugar in coffee. Then I started to watch my weight and my calorie intake as a result. I drunk a lot of tea and that could mean a lot of sugar, so I went cold-turkey and refused to have my drinks sweetened.
It didn't take long to adjust, and now I can't stand sweetened tea or coffee. If someone accidentally gives me a cup that has sugar in it, I simply can't drink it.
I'm not suggesting you go cold-turkey like I did. Rather, slowly reduce the amount of sugar in your tea until you are having none at all. You might start by only adding half a teaspoon instead of a whole one, then go down to a quarter, before stopping altogether. You can adjust over the course of a few weeks.
Once you do remove sugar from your tea and coffee, you'll find you adjust to the lack of it and won't want to go back. And you just saved all that sugar you would have consumed for other things.
One of the biggest sources of sugar consumption are baked goods, such as cakes, biscuits and sweet treats. The truth is that many of us consume these on a daily basis as a staple part of our diet rather than reserving them for an occasional treat. And, as a result, we consume large amounts of processed sugar.
The first step to reducing sugar from these products is to avoid buying ready-baked cakes, biscuits, etc., from the supermarket or bakery. Supermarket cakes and biscuits are usually very high in sugar, while items bought loose from a traditional bakery do not come with nutritional information and therefore you cannot judge how much sugar is actually in them.
While packaged cakes and biscuits are quick and convenient for stocking up the cupboard, they are really not the best option when trying to reduce sugar or weight.
A better option is to bake such items for yourself. While this requires time and effort, it also means that you can adapt recipes to make them healthier and you will also know the exact ingredients that have gone into your cake. For instance, many sponge cakes can be baked with a minimal amount of sugar, some with no sugar at all if they are going to be iced or have a filling. Whenever I cook cake from a recipe, I halve the sugar content as a matter of course. You can make cake even healthier by swapping fats (such as butter or margarine) for vegetables. Beetroot works brilliantly as an alternative to butter in chocolate cake, for instance.
Experiment with recipes to see just how much you can reduce the sugar content. Adding dried fruit* to cakes or biscuits will give them sweeteness without a need for sugar. When making cupcakes, halve the amount of icing you put on them, and decorate with fresh fruit to add natural sweetness.
Homemade cheesecakes and other desserts can also have their sugar content drastically reduced. Add lemon to a non-sweetened cheesecake mix to give it a sharp tang, and decorate with fruit. If chocolate is your preference, try reducing the amount you use, or switch to dark chocolate which contains less sugar. Use unsweetened cocoa powder in chocolate cakes, or reduce the overall size of a dessert to prevent eating too much.
Home baking does require effort, but the products taste better and are more satisfying. Equally, knowing exactly what has gone into a cake or dessert, means you can make healthier choices about what and how much to eat.
*technically, you are still adding sugar when using dried or fresh fruit, however, this is natural sugar, as opposed to refined sugar and they also contribute to your 5-a-day.
A Spoonful of Sugar
Whenever my nan served fruit or cereal to us as kids, it was always coated in a thick layer of sugar. A bowl of strawberries was not complete without crystals of white sweetness encrusting every bit, with extra in the bottom of the bowl to dip the fruit in. I cringe now to think of it - those healthy snacks were quickly turned into a nutritionist's worst nightmare with one shake of a spoon.
Cereals were the same; whether porridge or cornflakes, there was always a sound dusting of sugar.
It is these extra layers of sweetness which sneak a lot of sugar into our diets without us realising it. Most fruit, if eaten when ripe, does not require extra sugar to make it sweet. Removing those random spoonfuls can instantly reduce your sugar consumption, but how do you do it without noticing?
If you are prone to adding sugar to fruit, consider combining sweeter items with sharper ones in the same bowl. For instance, if you are used to sugar on your strawberries, try eating grapes and strawberries together. The natural sweetness of the grapes, will offset any sharpness in the strawberries. You could also try adding low fat Greek or natural yoghurt.
When reducing sugar it is best to avoid going 'cold turkey', instead slowly reduce the amount until you adapt to the new taste.
With cereals and porridge, the same applies. Gradually use less and less sugar. If you really can't eat porridge plain, you might consider adding a little honey, a source of natural sweetness that is far less processed. Or you can add bananas, raspberries or blueberries for a little taste.
I prefer my porridge made with full milk, as this gives a natural creamy taste requiring no sweetening. Full milk is often treated as sinful because of the fat content, but it is a good source of calcium and consuming it just once a day as part of a healthy diet is not going to hurt. You might also try alternative milks such as coconut, soya and almond. Finding your ideal taste combination may take time, but it will be worth it in the end, as long as what you add is not a source of high sugar.
What's All the Fizz About?
Soft drinks have, for many years, been pilloried for containing high amounts of sugar. Due to the sugar tax in the UK, many soft drinks have now reformulated their recipes to contain artificial or synthesised sweeteners instead. This fails to solve the problem, as research now indicates that sweeteners can also contribute to diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
So, how do you reduce your consumpation of these drinks while still getting your daily fluid needs?
This is probably the hardest challenge for anyone reducing their sugar intake. The simple answer is that you need to reduce how many soft drinks you consume in a day and instead drink unsweetened tea or coffee, or water. For many people this is not an attractive option, but it can be made more palatable.
Let's start by looking at alternative options:
Tea and Coffee: Unsweetened tea and coffee do not always appeal to people used to consuming sweet drinks, but they are cheap, easy to make and can be calorie free if consumed black. There are also different blends of tea and coffee, with different tastes.
Herbal Teas: Herbal teas come in a wealth of flavours that can compensate for a lack of sugar. They are usually drunk without milk. Variety packs mean that different tastes can be consumed through the day to avoid boredom, though it may take trial and error to find the teas you like.
Water, plain or unflavoured: There is really nothing healthier than plain, old water, either from the tap or a bottle. The great news is there is usually no charge for tap water in a cafe or restaurant. But for many people (and I do include myself in this) water is just not appealing unless you are really thirsty. Unfortunately, shop-bought flavoured waters tend to contain sugar or sweeteners, which is not helpful when cutting down. Luckily, it is easy to make your own flavoured waters. All you need to do is add fruit or vegetables to a jug or bottle of water and leave to infuse. The longer it is left, the stronger the flavour. Cucumber, lemon, strawberries, apples and oranges are just a few of the things that can be added to water to give it taste.
Equally, tea makers are starting to produce flavoured, no-sugar products for infusing in iced teas. These can be adapted to make flavoured waters. You can find these blends in the tea and coffee aisle of the supermarket.
When starting to cut down on soft drink consumption, the best thing to do is work to cut out one drink at a time. Supposing you drink eight cans of cola in a day. Switch one of those cans to water or tea, do that for a couple of days, then switch out two, then three. How much you reduce your consumption is up to you. You might want to cut them all out, or drop to just one soft drink a day.
People often think that switching from soft drinks to fruit juice is a healthier alternative. Ironically, this is not the case. Many fruit juices contain similar amounts of sugar to soft drinks. For instance, a 100ml serving of grapefruit juice contains 8.6g of natural sugars, while 100ml of Coco Cola contains 10.6g. However, you do get the benefits of consuming vitamins when drinking juice and contributing to your 5-a-day.
Knowing The Numbers
One of the ways that sugars get secretly into our lives is through the products we buy. Sauces, ready meals, even tinned fruit can contain sneaky sugars. These have been added to enhance flavours or to preserve the product, and are often not apparent at a quick glance.
You might, for instance, have bought a jar of bolognese sauce to go over pasta and vegetables, which would seem a healthy choice. But the sauce will probably contain sugar as part of the recipe. Even if you make a bolognese sauce from scratch, you may find the tinned tomatoes you use contain added sugar!
It is a real minefield for shoppers and the only solution is to examine labels and to cook as much as possible using fresh ingredients. Ready-meals are best avoided as much as possible, as are many brands of sauces (such as ketchup, brown sauce and even some mustards) which will contain sugar.
This does make shopping a chore, but if you are already cutting down sugar in other aspects of your life, it is worth the effort.
At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own health and the choices we make in what we consume. While sugar is not the evil curse the media might make out, it is something we need to be conscious of in our diets. Reducing our sugar intake, just a little, can make us feel healthier and decrease the risks of certain illnesses. But, ultimately, it is your choice. I just hope I have given you some options to think about!