When NOT to worry about the sugar in your food

Health and Fitness
Sugar it seems, is not quite as ‘sweet’ as we once thought.

We’ve always known that eating copious amounts of lollies, cakes and chocolate wasn’t good for us, but messages in the media these days often hint at the apparent dangers of hidden sugars, the ones lurking in so-called healthy foods or foods that may not even taste sweet.

With all the talk of quitting or avoiding sugar at all costs, there are many individuals who are quite confused about what they should and shouldn’t be eating regularly. This is because, upon closer inspection, nearly all foods, except chicken, meat and fish, contain sugar, either because it naturally occurs in that food or because it’s been added.

If you’ve read about the perils of sugar and the toxic effects of its consumption and then found that your favourite fruits, yoghurt, breakfast cereals and even vegetables contain this so-called poisonous substance, it’s no wonder you’re anxious and confused about the right way forward to establishing healthy eating habits for you and your family.

Sugar is a natural substance. It’s a simple carbohydrate and it fuels our body. It’s actually created by the sun!

Sunlight on the leaves of plants activates a substance called chlorophyll which helps the plant photosynthesize and turn carbon dioxide into carbohydrate! So amazing!

The problem is not sugar itself. In and of its self, it is not poisonous, dangerous or toxic. It is simply a macro nutrient (large nutrient) that is broken down through a chemical pathway known as glycolysis to yield energy for a body that moves, thinks and possibly grows or needs to repair itself.

The problem is in the dose. Too much sugar, is when we start to run into problems. This is also true for other nutrients. 

If you consume too much fat, iron, or even some vitamins, you’ll put yourself at risk of sickness and in some cases death.

Good nutrition can be best described by the goldilocks principle. Not too little, not too much, just right! The same goes for sugar. You do need to eat a little bit, preferably from nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and legumes. But eat too much, especially from processed or refined foods with high amounts of added sugar, and you put your body at risk of becoming overweight or developing chronic disease.

So, in the interest of relieving food anxiety and helping you feel confident in your food choices, here is a list of foods, that naturally contain sugar and that you can happily eat every single day for the rest of your life!

Vegetables

Yes, vegetables naturally contain sugar. Should you be worried? Absolutely not! These foods are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. You simple cannot eat well without them. You should aim to include five serves of these nutrition power houses every single day. Do this and you’ll reduce your risk of death from heart disease or cancer by up to 20 per cent.

What is one serve of vegetables?
  • ½ cup cooked vegetables (steamed, stir-fried, sautéed, boiled, etc); or
  • 1 cup raw vegetables (salad, etc)

 

The best way to meet the recommended serves each day is to aim to include ½ a dinner plate worth of vegetables with as many meals as possible.

Fruit

I’ve come across many website or blogs that demonise fruit or certain types of fruits. Labelling them as good or bad, because of the sugar that they contain. And, for argument’s sake, one large apple does contain the same amount of sugar as a small glass of soft drink. The point to remember is, the apple is nutrient dense. It contains fibre, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. The soft drink has none of that. It’s just sugar with no nutrition.

It’s recommended that we consume two serves of fruit per day.

What is one serve of fruit?
  • 1 piece of large fruit (apple, banana, orange, pear, etc); or
  • 2 pieces of smaller fruit (plum, kiwi, mandarin, etc); or
  • ½ cup berries, grapes or melon

 

When it comes to fruit, it’s worth paying attention to how much you eat. 5-6 serves per day is most likely going to be too much. It’s important however, that you consider your individual circumstances. For example, if you’re extremely active and exercise for 2-3 hours per day or have a highly active occupation, 5-6 serves of fruit per day is probably fine, especially if the rest of your diet is balanced and healthy. If you spend most of your day sitting on your butt (like me), then it’s probably best to stick to the two serves.

Legumes

These include foods such as beans, lentils and chick peas and all of them are absolute nutritional superstars! They all naturally contain some sugar. Should you avoid them? No way! They’re rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals and are a filling way to add good quality carbohydrate to your meals as well as offering a source of protein as well.

Dairy

There is much confusion around dairy and its products and whether or not you should be eating it. Milk naturally contains sugar. It’s known as lactose and it’s completely fine for you to consume as part of a dairy serve and poses no risk to your health.

Overall, if you don’t have an allergy (to the protein) or an intolerance (to the lactose), then it’s totally fine to include dairy products as part of a balanced diet. You don’t want to build you whole diet out of diary; in fact, you only need a maximum of two to three serves per day. If you’d prefer not to consume it, that’s fine too, however you may need some help ensuring that your diet can meet your body’s calcium needs. An accredited practicing dietitian can help you achieve that.

What about other dairy products?

Cheese contains a little sugar, nothing at all to worry about. The most common concern with dairy, is yoghurt, and in particular the ones that contain added sugar. This means that the product contains the sugar that naturally occurs in milk plus the sugar that was added during processing. You’ll know if it contains sugar by reading the ingredients list.

The best advice is to buy a plain natural yoghurt and add the sweetness yourself with fruit or honey. That way you can control the amount of added sugar in your serve. If you’d prefer to eat a sweetened yoghurt, compare the nutrition information panels of your favourite brands and buy the one that has the lowest amount of total sugar per 100g.

Follow the advice above instead of cutting yoghurt out. It's a great source of calcium, protein and if it contains live bacteria it’s a great probiotic as well!

Other dairy products like custard, ice cream and flavoured milks, all contain high amounts of added sugar and are best eaten sparingly, not every day.

Remember!

If a food has changed little between the farmer and you and is essentially ‘intact’, you don’t need to be concerned about any sugar that it naturally contains.

Whole foods, being rich in fibre and nutrients help your body to regulate its appetite and eat an appropriate portion size.

Think about 4-bean-mix and compare that to vanilla cake. Which one is easier to overeat? I would put money on the fact that after about 1 cup of beans you’d have had enough! And the cake? I’ll let you decide about that one!

I’d like to leave you with a final thought:

It’s important to moderate the sugar in your diet, but remember, when we focus purely on individual nutrients, like sugar, it’s easy to forget that we don’t eat individual nutrients, we eat foods, which are a combination of nutrients.  Good health is not just about reducing your sugar intake. It’s also about meeting your vegetable intake, getting adequate fibre and other nutrients and overall, eating a wide variety of different foods each and every day!

KATE FREEMAN
Kate Freeman is HRI's resident nutritionist Kate Freeman consults, writes, presents and mentors in the field of nutrition and has over 10 years of experience in the industry. 
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