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We’ve all heard it before—sugar is the number one public enemy when it comes to keeping yourself and your children healthy. Yet the combination of our city’s unapologetic love affair with desserts and the simple fact that sugar is injected into so many everyday food and drinks makes it all too easy for us to go overboard with the sweet stuff. If you’re looking to develop healthier habits and wean yourself off sugar, but are feeling at a bit of a loss as to where to start, don’t fret. We’ve consulted the experts at Bupa Global to give you the low-down on the impact of sugar consumption on our health and how you and your family can cut back!
Before you blindly commit yourselves to a life of sugar-less misery, it’s important to recognise that not all sugars are made the same. According to Bupa general practitioner Dr Luke Powles, sugar is a simple type of carbohydrate and one of the essential constituents of our food. There are different categories of sugar but the kind that you should really be keeping tabs on, as far its impact on health, is what is referred to as “free sugars,” also known as refined or added sugars.
Bupa specialist dietician Bianca Parau explains that these sugars are used to add flavour, preserve, and extend the shelf life of our food, as opposed to naturally occurring sugars in fruit, vegetables, or milk. Containing no vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients, free sugars are commonly found in fizzy drinks, sweets, syrups, honey, biscuits, and cakes, and added into processed foods like ready meals and pre-made sauces.
Many of us have experienced the proverbial sugar rush and dreaded crash after scarfing down one too many cookies. If you’ve ever wondered about the reason behind this, it’s because free sugars release energy considerably quicker than complex, slow-release carbohydrates like brown rice and sweet potatoes.
Beyond temporary high and slumps, the effects of sugar can run far deeper. Dr Powles points out that too much sugar contributes to weight gain, as excess energy coming into the body is stored as fatty tissue. In the long term, this can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Weight-related issues aside, there is a reason why dentists repeatedly warn children against consuming too much sugar, even at the risk of sounding like a broken record. It’s true that too much sugar is a major culprit for tooth decay, but what many people don’t realise is that, on top of dental problems, tooth decay is actually a big indication of generalised infection in the body.
At this point, you might be biting your nails in dreaded anticipation of having to kick sugar out of your life entirely, but luckily, both Bupa experts express that there is no need to go to such an extreme. “It’s not that you can’t eat sweet things at all,” Dr Powles reassures. “We all need enough glucose in our body to function, and sugar is not carcinogenic on its own. It’s all about the quantity.”
There’s another piece of good news for the hardcore sugar fiends out there. According to Parau, your cravings for sugar will subside as you wean yourself off it, and you will naturally want to eat less of it!
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends reducing free sugars to less than 10 percent of your total energy intake. For practical purposes, Dr Powles suggests sticking to less than 30 grams a day for adults, which equates to seven or eight sugar cubes; and 19 grams, or five sugar cubes, for kids up to six years old. Kids between seven and 10 should have no more than 24 grams.
To put that in a global context, a 2015 study by Euromonitor found that the average Brit consumes around 93.2 grams of sugar per day, ranking seventh-highest in the world. In the United States, people on average get through a staggering 126.4 grams each, while India checks in at just 5.1 grams per person.
Knowing that we’re eating too much sugar is one thing, but how can you go about reducing your family’s intake? As busy city hustlers, most of us don’t have the time and energy to track every gram of sugar in the food we consume. So as a general rule of thumb, Dr Powles recommends trying as hard as possible to eat less chocolate, sweets, buns, and cakes. Basically, things that logic suggests are loaded sugar bombs.
Parau says it’s best to stick to whole and natural foods, which have naturally occurring sugars to satisfy your cravings. As added sugar always manages to creep its way into processed food, it’s best to avoid them where possible and cook from scratch instead. When you’re shopping for groceries, get into the habit of reading nutrition labels, so you can understand what is in the products that you’re buying.
For families, a good place to start is by replacing fizzy drinks and sugary squash with sugar-free alternatives, low-fat milk, or diluted fruit juice. Little changes you make can also go a long way, like avoiding taking sugar in hot drinks or adding it to your breaking cereal, or cutting out things like jam, syrup, and honey.
As much as it may be difficult for you and your family at first, as you wean them off added sugar, their tastebuds will gradually adapt and get used to it. Dr Powles recommends reducing the amount gradually. And if you’re really struggling to transition off excess sugar, consider using artificial sweeteners in moderation.