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While Mary Poppins once suggested that ‘a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’, health professionals would recoil in horror at such a sentiment. Regularly consuming food and drink with high quantities of added sugar can have serious implications for your health, affecting not just your weight and oral health, but your heart, skin, liver and sleep patterns, to name but a few.
In this article, we’ll explore how cutting out added sugar can have multiple health benefits, improving not just your physical wellbeing but your mental wellbeing too.
Not to be confused with the natural sugars found in fruit, milk, vegetables, etc., added sugars (sometimes referred to as free sugars) are extracted and then added to food during the processing stage, usually to enhance the taste or flavour.
A surprisingly large number of food and drink contain added sugar – even those that claim to be healthy. Some of the worst culprits are biscuits, fizzy drinks, wine, breakfast cereals and flavoured yoghurts, but perhaps more of a surprise is the high level of added sugar found in ‘healthy’ foods and beverages, such as fruit juice, salad dressing, energy bars and coleslaw.
Essentially, yes, but this is more of a question of moderation. According to the NHS, adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day (the equivalent of approximately 7 sugar cubes). While added sugars can provide energy, they lack nutritional value which, when consumed excessively, can lead to tooth decay, weigh gain and health problems including heart disease, diabetes and kidney damage.
Cutting out sugar from your diet can have multiple benefits for your health. Here is a list of ten of those benefits:
You’ll have at some point heard the expression ‘empty calories’. Food and drink associated with empty calories are typically high in added sugar but low in essential nutrients which can result in weight gain, including a build-up of visceral fat. Swapping empty calories for nutrient-dense food high in protein and fibre can help you manage your weight more effectively.
A diet high in sugar often fuels cravings for more sugary food and sweetened drinks. Sugar triggers the release of dopamine, stimulating the brain’s reward centre. As a result, it’s not uncommon to experience withdrawal symptoms, resulting in a craving for more sugar. By reducing your sugar intake, you will find your cravings decrease significantly over time.
Studies show that a diet high in sugar increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. Even if you are not overweight, reducing your sugar intake can help protect your heart health now and in the future.
Cutting out added sugar plays a key role in improving dental care. Sugary foods and beverages interact with bacteria within the plaque, metabolising to produce acid which erodes tooth enamel, leading to tooth decay and cavities. Reducing your sugar intake means the production of these harmful acids is also reduced, resulting in healthier teeth and gums.
Approximately up to 1 in 5 people in the UK are affected by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition caused by fat buildup in the liver. Excess sugar can form part of that fat buildup, so by cutting out added sugar, this fat accumulation is reduced, decreasing the risk of liver damage and diseases such as cirrhosis.
Studies have found that people who regularly drink sugary beverages such as cola or energy drinks have approximately 25% greater risk of type 2 diabetes. While these studies don’t state that diabetes is a direct result of too much sugar, it is thought that it can trigger abnormal insulin production in your pancreas, increasing the risk of prediabetes, which can lead to type 2 diabetes. Swapping sugary drinks for water or sugar-free soft drinks can help reduce your sugar intake and therefore lower the risk of diabetes in the future.
A diet high in sugar may affect how the brain functions, thus impacting our mood. The gut and the brain are connected through the vagus nerve (known as the gut-brain connection) and food containing excessive added sugar can have a negative influence over the production of bacteria in the gut, leading to an imbalance of ‘bad’ bacteria over ‘good’ bacteria. As a result, there is a disruption in the gut-brain connection, which can impact on our mental health.
Sugary foods and beverage can cause a quick spike in blood sugar levels, which gives you a short-lived burst of energy. However, this spike rapidly drops (known as a crash) so regularly eating excessive amounts of added sugar can therefore cause lead to frequent crashes and erratic energy levels, leaving you feeling tired, irritable and unable to concentrate.
Reducing your sugar intake produces a more gradual release of sugar into your bloodstream, so your energy levels remain more stable.
A report from 2016 found that people who regularly consume sugary food and drink often experience disrupted sleep patterns as a result of spikes and drops in blood sugar levels. These fluctuations can lead to over-stimulation, making it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Switching to foods rich in fibre such as vegetables and wholemeal bread will help keep blood sugar levels steady through the night, enabling a better night’s rest.
Cutting excessive sugar from your diet can give your skin a boost in different ways. Too much sugar can cause inflammation, oxidative stress and glycation, which can damage skin cells and collagen, leading to wrinkles, dullness and acne. By swapping sugary drinks and snacks for water and fruit, you are giving your skin the nourishment it needs to prevent premature aging and enhance your skin's healthy glow.
If you’re finding it hard to give up your sweet treats, LiveWell Dorset is here to help. We offer a free advice and coaching service to help you make healthy lifestyle changes, creating personalised activity plans tailored to you and your goals.
You’ll find lots of useful tools and calculators on our website, including the Habit Hacker quiz designed by our health and psychology experts for people who need a bit of extra motivation to swap sugary snacks for healthier options. Register with us today to find out more.
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