Four wooden bowels containing sugar in different forms.

Is it healthy to be sugar-free?

Is a sugar-free diet really healthier? Lite n’ Easy Dietitian, Ashleigh Jones tells us why a spoonful of sugar doesn’t just help the medicine go down.

What is sugar?

Different types of sugar

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate which comes in many different forms: glucose, fructose and galactose. Our bodies make sugar from complex carbohydrates, but it is also naturally found in everyday foods, including fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Sugars can also be extracted from sugar cane and added to foods such as lollies and soft drinks.

Why is sugar bad for you?

Different types of junk food

No one is going to argue that ultra-processed discretionary foods such as soft drinks, energy drinks, juices, lollies, cakes and chocolate are not doing much good for your health. These foods are high in calories and contain lots of added sugar in various forms with very few nutrients.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests an excess of added sugars can lead to additional energy intake and weight gain. This is largely because these foods taste delicious but are not very satisfying, which makes them easy to overeat. This can not only wreak havoc on your waistline, but also on your; blood sugar levels, mood, digestion and even your heart health, as diets high in added sugar can lead to elevated blood triglyceride levels. Foods that contain lots of added sugar are also a problem for dental health, leading to an increased risk of dental caries (cavities).

Is a sugar-free diet healthier?

Foods that contain natural sugars

Like all things in nutrition, it’s best to avoid an “all or nothing” approach. Following a completely sugar-free diet is not only unnecessary but also extremely impractical. Because sugar occurs naturally in most food groups, there are very few completely sugar-free foods. Cutting out foods such as fruits and dairy products, which naturally contain sugar, means missing out on many essential nutrients such as vitamin C and calcium. Instead of trying to strictly avoid all sugar in all its forms, it’s much more beneficial to minimise your intake of added sugars which are found in discretionary foods such as soft drinks, lollies, chocolate and cakes.

It’s also worth considering that we cook with sugar for a reason – it tastes good! If half a teaspoon of sugar in a batch of Tomato Soup rounds out the flavour and makes it enjoyable for the whole family, this is a win for nutrition. Such a small amount of sugar won’t have any negative health effects, but it will facilitate the consumption and enjoyment of nutritious food. As far as your health is concerned, this is completely different to consuming soft drinks or lollies.

The WHO recommends less than 10% of energy should come from added sugars, which equates to less than 50g of added sugars for an average Australian adult. For reference, a metric teaspoon of sugar weighs a little over 4g.

How can I avoid added sugar?

Saying no to junk food

If your diet mostly consists of whole foods such as fruit and vegetables, lean protein, nuts, dairy products and grain foods, then your diet is likely to be low in added sugar. When it comes to added sugar, you need to look out for ultra-processed foods such as soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, juices, lollies, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and other types of confectionary.

Many people will look to the nutrition information panel (NIP) to try and figure out if a food contains sugar. While the NIP will tell you the sugar content of a food, it will not tell how much sugar is added and how much is naturally occurring.

To find out if a food contains added sugar, you will need to check the ingredients list, not the NIP. Learn how to spot added sugar on an ingredients list.

Is stevia a better choice?

Stevia

Some people try to reduce their consumption of added sugar by using non-nutritive sweeteners. These include products like saccharin, sucralose, aspartame and stevia. Non-nutritive sweeteners are free from sugar, which means they don’t impact blood glucose levels, and contain negligible Calories, which can be useful for people with diabetes and people trying to lose weight.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are considered to be safe ingredients to use as part of a balanced, healthy diet, however not everyone enjoys their taste. But if you are in the habit of regularly consuming soft drinks, and are struggling to cut down, a diet or no sugar version will at least cut your Calories and your sugar intake.

Stevia is often thought of as a more “natural” alternative to other non-nutritive sweeteners, however the sweet, white powder you add to coffee is quite far removed from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant from which it’s source. Stevia is also considered to be an additive under the Food Standards Code, and will often be listed on ingredients lists as ‘sweetener (960)’ or ‘sweetener (steviol glycosides)’.

There is emerging evidence which suggests non-nutritive sweeteners may have negative impacts on gut health and appetite regulation, however it is still early days.

Lite n’ Easy avoids the use of non-nutritive sweeteners in its meals, instead using very small amounts of sugar as needed to round out the flavour in meals.

The bottom line

So should you go sugar-free to lose weight? No doubt swapping foods such as soft drinks, fruit juices and ultra-processed foods for healthy meals is a great strategy to lose weight. However, don’t forget to look at the big picture. Whole fruit and dairy products have several health benefits, even if they do contain a small amount of naturally occurring – not added – sugar.  And if you enjoy 1 tsp of sugar in your coffee with breakfast, that’s not worth losing sleep over. It’s far more important to consume five serves of vegetables, two serves of fruit, and focus on enjoying a nutrient-rich, whole food diet.

How Lite n’ Easy can help!

The single most important dietary change you can make to be healthier is to eat five serves of veggies and two serves of fruit each day. But it can be hard, which is why Lite n’ Easy’s complete meal solutions are the way to go. You’ll get to eat the right foods in the right portions throughout the day and get your daily 5+2 simply by enjoying our complete solution with a huge range of delicious meals. Give us a call on 13 15 12 or click here to order now.

 

Ashleigh Jones – Senior Dietitian