Our Nutritionist’s Guide to the White Stuff
All the sugars are the same. Right? Maybe not.Let’s start with science. Carbohydrates are made up of sugars, fibre and starches and a balanced diet usually consists of 40-50% carbohydrates per day. Most of this should come from fibre and starches (see my blog on the gut if you haven’t already). Sugar on the other hand can be very confusing. There are different types of sugars in the foods we eat and I’m hoping I can explain why not all sugars are same.
Sugar is made up of sucrose molecules, sucrose is a glucose and fructose molecule joined together. Sugar is a great source of energy and fuel for our body, but if eaten is large quantities it can be detrimental for our health, teeth and can cause spikes in our blood glucose levels. You’ll find sucrose (sugar) in a number of different food sources, some of these are naturally occurring, such as in fruit and vegetables and others are added to make the food item sweeter in taste like fizzy drinks, chocolate and cakes.
There is little evidence that natural sugars in fruit and vegetables have adverse health effects. In fact, studies have demonstrated that a diet rich in plants (800g worth per day) can have some incredible health benefits, including:
- 25% reduced risk of heart disease.
- 13% reduced risk of cancer.
- 33% reduced risk of a stroke.
That’s an overall reduced risk of death of nearly 10% if you just eat more plants. At RDCTD we’re convinced that our diets should be based on plants. We aren’t vegan – but we definitely believe in a plant-led diet and don’t worry about the sugars.
It is free sugars in particular that we need to eat less of. These are sugars added to foods and drinks by manufacturers and common foods which contain free sugars are chocolate, cakes, biscuits and desserts. These can also be very high in calories and consuming these too often can lead to weight gain.
To put this into context let’s compare two food items. A bar of dairy milk chocolate is around 45g, it contains 240kcal and 25g of sugar. A banana is around 100g, it is 81kcal and contains 18g of sugar. A banana is also a great source of fibre, vitamins and minerals, while the chocolate has very low nutritional value.
When it is digested, the fibre in a banana slows down the absorption of the naturally occurring sugar and helps to maintain a feeling a fullness. Whereas the ‘free sugars’ in a chocolate bar are absorbed much faster and can result in a sugar highs and peaks of energy after eating it. When looking at food labels, manufacturers are required to list total sugars– and this could come from ‘added sugar’ such as honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses/treacle, nectars, agave syrup, coconut sugar, dextrose, fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose. Or it could be naturally occurring sugar found in fruit and vegetables.
So, my top tip for understanding sugar is: rather than looking at the total sugar on a label check out the ingredients list first as ‘naturally occurring sugars’ in fruits and vegetables are very different from ‘added sugar’.