Let’s talk about Sugar

Happy young woman eating chocolate candies. Portrait against blue wall.

Sugar. It makes food taste sweet and great. However, when sugar is eaten in excess, it can lead to weight gain. Weight gain, specifically weight gain around the middle, has shown to increase risk of diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol. You may know it is found in some of our favorite foods like biscuits, cakes, jalebi, and kheer. But did you know there are sugars hiding in foods where you would not expect?  Look at salad dressings, ketchup, pasta sauce, soups, peanut butter and yogurts – if you look at the nutrition facts label and/or ingredients (found on the back), you will see sugar or you may even see a mystery word, which can also mean sugar (i.e. dextrose).

There is a lot of confusion about ‘natural’ sugars vs processed/refined sugar. Is one better than the other? Are artificial sweeteners okay to consume? What can I eat that is sweet but still healthy?  Let’s start by answering some of these common questions.

I’ve heard that brown sugar or honey or even gur is better than white sugar. Is that true? What is the difference between all these sugars?

Brown sugar is essentially white sugar with added molasses (dark brown sugar syrup), which also makes it softer. Honey, which is a natural sugar, can still increase your blood sugar and when eaten often can still lead to weight gain. Gur is a natural product of sugar cane and less refined than white sugar. It contains a small amount of micronutrients than refined sugar but it still contains the molasses. However, to receive any benefits from these micronutrients you will have to eat at least ½ cup of gur.

Bottom line: All types of sugars will increase your blood sugar and when eaten often can lead to weight gain and increase risk of chronic disease. If you struggle with controlling your sugar intake, you may want to try an artificial sweetener (e.g. Splenda). Sweeteners contain no calories and do not affect blood sugars.

What is the difference between added sugar and natural sugar? Where do I find them?

Added sugars are sugars and syrups added to food during processing or preparation. They are found in food such as: granola bars, flavored yogurts, muffins, cakes, cookies, hot chocolate, donuts, ice cream, gulab jamun, jalebi, etc. Most of these foods offer very little nutrients and can be high in sugar and fat. When these types of food are eaten daily, they can lead to weight gain and increase risk of chronic disease.

Natural sugars occur naturally in food. They are found in foods such as: plain yogurt and milk, fruit, and some grains. These foods tend to be higher in nutrients (like protein), vitamin & minerals, and fiber. They may help keep you full longer and help with blood sugar control if you have diabetes. These foods are minimally processed and have shorter ingredient lists than highly processed foods, e.g. chocolate bars, which can contain more than 10 ingredients.

Bottom line: Treat added sugar foods as treats and have it sometimes; have them 1-3 times per month.  If you are diabetic, talk to your dietitian or call HealthLink BC at 8-1-1 to speak to a dietitian. Be aware of added sugar in foods by reading labels.

Add more natural sugars into your diet by having fruits as snacks or adding them to smoothies or plain yogurt.

How to calculate how much sugar you are eating?

You can figure out how many teaspoons of sugar you are eating by dividing the grams of sugar (found on the nutrition label) by 4. For example, a pop can which can contain up to 40 grams of sugar, when divided by 4 is close to 10 teaspoons of sugar. For foods like yogurt, the grams of sugar also contain naturally occurring sugars – so if you are curious, compare a plain yogurt and a flavored yogurt for the difference.

The World Health Organization recommends that adults and children and adults reduce their free (added) sugar intake to less than 10% of total energy intake; which is about 12 teaspoons a day. So after drinking a pop can, you are left with 2 teaspoons of sugar for the whole day.

Bottom line:  Read every label and cut sugar intake where you can. Keeping your sugar intake to less than 12 teaspoons will reduce your risk of obesity and being overweight, which can lead to other health conditions.

What are some good snack ideas to replace the sweets?

Try baking at home. You can make a batch of healthy homemade muffins and throw them in freezer – take one out whenever you crave something sweet.

  • Trail mix – add dried raisins or cranberries. Even chocolate as a treat.
  • Yogurt parfait – plain yogurt, cut up fruit and granola. Add almonds or walnuts for extra protein & crunch
  • Cookies – try Social tea or arrowroot cookies. Keep your limit to 2.
  • Granola bars – choose ones that are less than 10 grams of sugar. Avoid bars that are chocolate covered.

Next time you pick up a packaged food item, take the time to read the back. You may be surprised to find hidden sugars in some of your favorite foods.

If you have any questions that you would like answered, please email us at SouthAsianHealth@Fraserhealth.ca