Low Sugar Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Most people love the taste sugar gives to food, but because our consumption of sugar is so high, and often ‘hidden’ within foods, we are realising that sugar is not the friend we thought it was as many are paying the price for sugar addiction.
There are many research papers detailing how bad sugar is, particularly the correlation between sugar and diabetes and obesity which have become serious issues around the world.
This article looks at how sugar affects our body, the different types of sugar, sugar alternatives, artificial sugars and how to go sugar free slowly.
Giving up sugar is very difficult for most people. It has been compared to giving up any drug of addiction and let’s face it, sugar is addictive. You don’t realise until you try to remove it from your diet.
It is quite insidious how sugar can be found lurking in the most unsuspecting places, as well as the obvious.
There are two ways to give up sugar. The first is to go ‘cold turkey’ and stop eating anything with sugar added, and also cut out the high content natural sugars found in dried fruit and many fresh fruits. The second method is to give up sugar gradually in a step-by-step fashion.
For example, in the second method, the first step could be to gradually reduce the amount of sugar in tea and coffee until such point that you don’t need it any more as your taste buds adjust. At the same time, you could cut out the obvious products that are laden with refined sugar such as soft drinks/sodas, sugar in cakes, biscuits, and pastries. Instead use alternative healthier sugars such as maple syrup, rice bran syrup, coconut sugar, dates, and mashed fruit.
The next step is to cut out buying and using any forms of added sugars in products such as sauces and condiments and appreciate eating sweet fresh fruits. After a while the next step to switch to eating low sugar fruits like berries and low sugar foods will be an easy transition.
I can’t list the dangers of sugar without stating that sugar is one of the biggest culprits for the growing number of obese people on this planet. Obesity appears to be getting worse with each generation.
When I went to school there may have been two or three overweight kids in the school. When my kids went to school there where two or three per classroom. Now there seems to be more chubby kids than slim kids at school, and some are already obese before they start school.
Each time we travel to Asian countries where slim bodies were the norm, we notice there are more chubby kids and how that correlates to their diet, which unfortunately in some areas is transitioning to a westernised diet. To find the cause for this epidemic, simply look at what is typically being consumed today.
Blood pressure risk
Sugar consumption can raise blood pressure, even if you don’t put on much weight. High blood pressure increases your risk of serious cardiovascular conditions like heart attack and stroke.
Sugar can change the ratio of good fats to bad fats in your arteries, which raises your cholesterol and all the resulting problems.
Did you know that sugar consumption can lead to fatty liver? Any excess sugar that we don’t use for energy soon after consumption is stored in the liver, which creates inflammation and scarring of the liver as well as making it sluggish. Fatty liver is a real concern because it can lead to heart attacks, diabetes, liver cancer and other serious health conditions.
It rots your teeth
We should know this one, but even in a world where water is fluoridated, cavities are still on the rise due to the excessive use of sugar in foods and drinks. Rotting teeth and gums makes our breath stink, but the bad breath that comes from sugar consumption often comes from the wrong bacteria, not only in the mouth but also in the gut.
It can also rot your brain
That doesn’t sound very nice, but sugar can reduce your cognitive ability and memory, and has even been linked with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Just when you thought that sugar gives you a spike in energy and alertness, after that initial spike, it can let you down big time.
Diabetes risk increases
Bet you knew that one was coming. Apparently, drinking two cans of sweet soft-drink/soda per day can increase your risk of getting diabetes by 25%. That’s massive and that doesn’t even include all the other sugar from food. No wonder diabetes is on the rise.
Depression risk increases
There are many causes for depression, and one of the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter hormones called dopamine is released when sugar (and chocolate) is consumed, which you might think is a good thing. The problem is that too much sugar, or eating it regularly, shuts down the body’s ability to release dopamine naturally (because it thinks the sugar is doing it).
It’s somewhat like hormone replacement therapy, where what you consume does the job that the body can’t. Unfortunately, this happy high doesn’t last for long and like other drugs, makes you want more. Long term, this can lead to feelings of depression or withdrawal anxiety.
Fortunately, when we stop eating sugar our natural process can resume and dopamine is released as needed. (If you have depression, please seek the guidance of your health practitioner).
Foods and drinks high in sugar can damage your collagen and elastin which are what our skin needs to stay youthful looking. Sugar can increase inflammation in the body which can exacerbate any skin condition or even create a skin condition.
As above, sugar can also create inflammation in other parts of the body, not just the liver and skin but virtually anywhere that may already have a weakness.
Sugar can reduce the number of white cells we have available to kill off bacteria and other bugs. In fact, sugar feeds the bad bugs and kills off good bacteria by changing the environment in the gut.
I could make this list a few pages long, but you get the idea that sugar is not so good anymore. It has been around and part of ‘natural’ living for so long that it’s hard to accept that this delicious substance can be so awful for our bodies.
- Agave Nectar
- Apple juice concentrate
- Barley Malt Syrup
- Beet Sugar
- Blackstrap Molasses
- Cane Crystals
- Cane Juice Crystals
- Castor Sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Coconut nectar
- Corn Sweetener
- Corn Syrup
- Corn Syrup Solids
- Crystalline Fructose
- Date Sugar
- Demerara Sugar
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Florida Crystals
- Fruit Juice
- Fruit Juice Concentrate
- Glucose Solids
- Golden Sugar
- Golden Syrup
- Granulated Sugar
- Grape Juice Concentrate
- Grape Sugar
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup
- Icing Sugar
- Invert Sugar
- Malt Syrup
- Maple Syrup
- Muscovado Syrup
- Pear juice concentrate
- Powdered Sugar
- Rapadura sugar
- Raw Sugar
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum Syrup
- Sugar cane crystals
- Turbinate Sugar
As you can see from this list, there are many ways manufacturers can sneak in extra sugar. Sometime a single product can list 4-6 different types of sugar in the packet so it doesn’t look like there is much sugar at all.
But the discerning buyer can see right through this and know it is riddled with sugar. It’s a good idea to always read the labels of packet foods and see the order that ingredients are listed. Manufacturers must list the quantities of ingredients in descending order, with the highest at the top to the lowest at the bottom. For example, sweet chilli sauce lists its ingredients as: sugar, water, chillies, etc, meaning that this product weight for weight has sugar as its main ingredient.
Others may have sugar last on their list but there is still plenty of it. The way to know how much sugar is in the product is to check the ‘nutritional panel’, where it will give you the grams or ounces per serve (and also check the serving size) per 100g or 3.5oz.
Remember that it only takes 4.1 grams (0.14oz) to make a teaspoon of pure sugar and looking at the amount per 100g gives you the percentage e.g. 35g per 100g = 35% sugar.
A packet of 10 biscuits may list a serving as one biscuit. But you might like three biscuits for morning tea. So add up the total sugar to see how much you are consuming. In a low sugar diet, you want to keep your daily sugar as low as possible. Even natural whole foods like fruit have some sugar, which is counted as part of your daily sugar quotient.
Various associations suggest keeping your total daily sugars to six teaspoons (25g/0.88oz). This doesn’t mean have three cups of coffee with two teaspoons in each, because many foods naturally contain sugar, so adding sugar to anything will definitely not be considered a low sugar diet.
Apparently most people consume around 30 teaspoons per day just in normal everyday foods. For example, there is around 4tsp of sugar in 100g/3.5oz serve of low-fat flavoured yoghurt (and that’s a tiny serve of around ½ cup). If you had a cup full that’s 8tsp in one sitting. The average muesli bar has around 30g sugar, which is nearly 8tsp sugar.
What does 6 tsp of sugar look like? Well it’s about the amount in two serves of fruit such as an apple and a banana. By comparison, avocado has 0.7g/100g and 100g of carrots has 4.7g or around 1tsp. If you have one bottle (20oz) of cola soft drink it has the same amount of sugar as three pounds or 1.38kg of carrots.
There are many sugar alternatives on the market. Some are still high in sugar but have a higher nutritional value, or may have less (or more) damaging effects on the body, depending on the product. Here are some of the common sugar alternatives:
Agave has high fructose content so use it very sparingly. Agave syrup is between 70-97% fructose which some claim to be the most damaging form of sugar we can eat.
Popular these days, and does contain great nutrients, but it is still sugar and contains nearly 50% fructose. On the plus side, it does have a low GI and contains lots of nutrients.
Rice malt syrup
Definitely a better option than table sugar with its low glycemic index and no fructose, but it still increases the sugar levels. Great for transitioning off sugar, but still use it sparingly.
Made from dried sugar cane juice (yes, the stuff they make pure white sugar from) but less processed so it has more nutrients but don’t be fooled as it is still very high in sugar. Contains 100g of sugar per 100ml.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Sometimes just labelled as ‘corn syrup’ it’s 50% fructose and 50% glucose and must be one of the scariest sweet things around. It can actually contain up to 570mcg of mercury per gram. Wow! Do not touch with a ten-foot barge pole (that’s a 3.048 metre barge pole for our metric friends…but it doesn’t sound as good).
Made from the sap of a tree and contains loads of antioxidants, but at the end of the day it is still sugar, just a more nutritious one. Every 100mls of maple syrup contains 1.2g of pure fructose, 3.2g of pure glucose and 74.9g of sucrose (which breaks down to glucose and fructose), a total of 79.2g of sugar per 100ml. Pure glucose syrup has 55.9g of sugar per 100ml.
Also quite high in fructose, honey does have some great health benefits, but it’s not good for the sugar levels. In every 100mls of honey you will find 58.1g of fructose, 47.5g of glucose, 2.3g of sucrose and 9.6g of maltose, totalling 117.4g of total sugars per 100mls. Wow!
Derived from a sweet-tasting, tuberous root that contains a fibre called fructo-oligosaccharides which is a pre-biotic (it feeds the friendly bacteria in gut) and has half the calories of normal sugar. It is 20% sucrose so still use sparingly. Not advisable for those with SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) or you will get bloated with this sweetener.
Many like to use dried fruit to add sweetness to their diet, but it is packed with sugar, although very natural and full of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Common dried fruits used include cranberries, goji berries, dates, figs, currents, sultanas and raisins. Dried dates for example, have about 66g of sugar per 100g of dried fruit – that’s about 65 calories per date. And that can really add up in a date slice or date ball!
Used sparingly as a splash in mineral or plain water to give a sweet taste to keep the sugar level low. Fruit juice concentrates on the other hand are loaded with sugar. For a lower sugar version, try a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime in water.
Fruit as a sweetener
Apples, pears, and bananas are commonly used as sweeteners when making baked goods rather than adding sugar. This can be a good alternative depending on how many pieces of fruit are used per serve size. Bananas that weigh 100g will have 6.2g of fructose and 6.7g of glucose, giving a total of 12.8g of sugar or 3tsp sugar. Every 100g of apples has a total of 9.8g of sugar and pears around 10g per 100g, or roughly 2tsp of sugar per 100g of fruit.
Can add a sweet taste without topping up the sugar quotient.
Coconut shredded, flaked, as flour or creamed has a natural sweetness but only has around a teaspoon (5g/0.17oz) of carb/sugar per cup – so coconut products can make great low sugar sweet tasting snacks.
Not really a sugar, but a plant that imparts a sweet taste when added to food. Some don’t like the after-taste of this plant sweetener, but if you don’t mind it, use as a good alternative to sugar if you need something sweet.
From a fruit grown in southern China and tastes incredibly sweet. It is around 200 times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a long way. It has zero calories and no impact on blood sugar levels and doesn’t have any aftertaste, so it’s a winner.
Monk fruit is not sweetened from ‘natural sugars’ but from its own inbuilt natural antioxidant called ‘Mogrosides’ which just happens to taste sweet, somewhat like Stevia, being a sweet tasting leaf. Currently it is very expensive, so it is often found mixed with stevia to keep the price down.
This is what they call a plant sugar or sugar alcohol, similar to iso-malt, xylitol and many others. They say it’s safe as a sugar alternative, but it can cause stomach ache, diarrhoea and headaches for some people.
Calorie comparison of some natural sweeteners
- Banana or apple puree (1 cup has around 200 calories)
- Brown Rice Syrup (1 tablespoon has 55 calories)
- Coconut Sugar (1 tablespoon has 45 calories)
- Dates (1 Medjool Date has 66 calories)
- Honey (1 tablespoon has 64 calories)
- Maple Syrup (1 tablespoon has 52 calories)
- Monk fruit (0 calories)
- Molasses (1 tablespoon has 47 calories)
- Stevia (0 calories)
Over the years many people have used artificial sweeteners as a sugar replacement so they can still have their sweet treat without the added calories. Diabetics also commonly use sweeteners to help control their diabetes but still enjoy sweet tasting things.
In more recent times, studies have shown that some of these additives can be detrimental to our health and in some cases, downright deadly. We could assume they are ok if they were approved for use in our food and drinks, but we have been guinea pigs for many years.
Authorities are just starting to see the real dangers of these substances, and they are gradually being banned and removed from products, but unfortunately, not before much damage has been already done.
Some companies have changed their artificial sweeteners purely from the pressure of the public who now choose not to have certain additives. The best way forward to show companies that we don’t want to be poisoned, is to simply not buy from them. Eventually they will get the message and change their ingredients to suit – or go bankrupt. Money speaks loudly to most companies.
Sweet artificial additives to look out for and avoid
- Acesulfame potassium
- Sweet ‘N Low
It is not just in food and drinks that we find these toxic substances, but also in many other things we use daily. We don’t have to swallow something for it to be absorbed into our bloodstream. It can be absorbed through our skin and through the mucus membranes of our mouth. Read all labels carefully to see what additives are in your products.
Artificial sweeteners to be wary of
- Toothpastes and mouthwashes
- Children’s chewable vitamin and mineral supplements
- Cough syrups and liquid medicines
- Chewing gums – ‘no added sugar’ types
- Nicotine chewing gum
- Salad dressings – low calorie types
- Candies/lollies – low calorie or no added sugar types
- No-calorie flavoured waters and drinks
- Alcoholic beverages and mixers – low cal types
- Frozen yogurts and other fresh or frozen desserts
- Baked pastries and other processed foods
- Low calorie yogurts
- Low calorie breakfast cereals
- Low calorie ‘anything’ sweet potentially has artificial sweeteners
- Processed snack foods
- Diet fruit juices and beverages
- Prepared and processed meats
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.