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How sweet are you? – Should you cut sugar from your diet?

You don’t have to look far to see how popular low or no sugar diets are.  The popularity of fad diets comes in waves and makes a resurgence every few years.  A new name, some slight tweaks, and voila, there’s a new fad diet!

Atkins, keto, I Quit Sugar, and the zone diet are all types of low carbohydrate diets, all promoting the consumption of little to no sugar or carbohydrates.  But is cutting out sugar from your diet really a good idea?

What is sugar?

Not many people realise this, but sugar is a type of carbohydrate, and carbohydrates play an important role in our diet.  Carbohydrates provide our bodies with much needed energy for us to go about our daily lives.

Sugar, also referred to as a simple carbohydrate, comes in different forms and are easily digested in our body.  They include:

  • Glucose e.g. in fruit, some vegetables, honey
  • Fructose e.g. in fruit and honey
  • Sucrose e.g. in table sugar
  • Lactose e.g. in milk (excluding milks made from non-animal sources) and milk products such as yoghurt, and breast milk
  • Maltose e.g. malted grains like malted barley, often added to foods/sweet products in the same manner as table sugar

Complex carbohydrates, like grains, rice, legumes, and potatoes, are made up of chains of simple carbohydrates.  Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and provide us with that ‘slow release energy’.

What is added sugar?

Added sugar is sugar that has been added to products to help to improve the taste.  Sugar is often added to sweet foods like cakes and biscuits, but also to sauces like marinades and salad dressing, as well as breakfast cereals and soft drinks. 

Our bodies don’t need carbohydrate from foods with added sugar.  There is very little nutritional benefit to consuming these types of foods.  This is why the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends eating these foods the least. 

Is cutting out sugar healthy?

Cutting sugar completely out of your diet is extremely difficult.  Sugar is naturally present in so many different types of foods, including fruits, vegetables, pasta, rice, milk and yoghurt, nuts and seeds, and your favourite dessert.  Completely cutting sugar out of your diet would leave you with very few options, which would not make up a healthy diet (and it would also be pretty boring too).

Since carbohydrates have such an important role in our bodies, cutting sugar out completely is not ideal.  Glucose is our body’s preferred fuel source, so cutting carbohydrates may prevent your body from working efficiently.  You might start to feel a little ‘foggy’ or have difficulty concentrating because your brain isn’t getting enough energy.  Or your digestive system may not be working optimally, because you’ve starved all those good bacteria from their dinner too!

For people with particular medical conditions, reducing the amount of sugar and carbohydrates they eat can positively impact their health, for example people who have type 2 diabetes. 

Can I include sugar in a healthy diet?

100% yes!  Sugar can definitely be included in a healthy diet.  As mentioned, sugar is present in foods like fruit, vegetables, dairy products, breads and cereals (these are four out of the five food core groups!). 

Consuming foods with added sugar can also make up a healthy diet.  We do, of course, need to be mindful of the amounts that we consume.  The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends limiting the number of discretionary items to 2.5 serves for women and 3 serves for men aged 19-50.  Discretionary items can also be referred to as ‘sometimes foods’ or ‘junk food’ and includes cakes, sweet biscuits, pies, sausage rolls, energy drinks, alcohol, and jam.  For the complete list, check out: https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/food-essentials/discretionary-food-and-drink-choices.  You might be surprised to see what else is on the list. 

We don’t need to completely restrict ourselves from having the occasional cake or biscuit.  When the balance starts to tip and we’ve having more discretionary items and fewer healthful foods, then some changes do need to be made.  If we restrict ourselves too much, then it is highly likely that we’ll end up having a binge eating session, eating all of the food we have in the house and our neighbours house too!

Quick tips on how you can reduce added sugars from my diet

If you are looking to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet because you’ve released you’re consuming too much added sugar, you can start by reducing your intake of discretionary items.  They are often the culprits responsible for the excess intake of sugar.

  • Reduce the number of biscuits you eat throughout the day.  If you typically eat 3 biscuits, try cutting that back to 2, then try cutting it back to 1.  The same goes for any other type of sweet food.  The key is to slowly reduce your intake over a few weeks, rather than quit cold turkey.
  • Stop and think about why you’re eating the extra sweet foods.  Are you actually hungry?  Are you bored?  Is there absolutely nothing else in the house to eat?  Once you work out why you might be eating sweet foods unnecessarily, you could use another task to distract yourself.  For example, go for a quick walk around the house, do five jumping jacks, or do a quick sudoku. 
  • Keep fruit in a fruit bowl where it is easy to see in your kitchen.  If you find yourself feeling hungry, seeing some fruit in front of you as you walk into the kitchen can be a helpful reminder for you to choose the fruit over the lamington.
  • If you’re someone who likes to bake, try to reduce the amount of sugar you add in the recipe.  Instead of putting in 1 cup of sugar, try 1/2 a cup!
  • Swap sprinkling sugar over your Weet-Bix for fresh fruit.  Not only will you be benefiting from the vitamins and minerals found in fruit, but they can help you feel fuller due to the fibre content, and it will help you reach your recommended fruit serves for the day.  Banana, blueberries, and raspberries are delicious options.

For more tailored advice to suit you, your goals, and your lifestyle, see an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

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