Healthy, Real Food Sugar Swaps

You can’t have failed to notice that sugar is now the root of all food evil.  There has been a great deal of media coverage lately, from the Change 4 Life Sugar Smart campaign to Jamie Oliver’s sugary drinks tax campaign.  Excess sugar in the diet is stored as fat in the body.  High levels of sugar consumption are now being blamed for a range of different diseases and health problems.

Photo credit: Moyan Brenn via flickr


Humans naturally like the taste of sugar, but it is not actually needed in the diet.  It contains no vitamins, no minerals, no protein.  It only provides calories. Early humans’ only source of sugar was from fruit or honey, which was in short supply and only available at certain times of year.  Refined sugar became part of our diet in the 18th Century, and consumption has risen since then.  However, excessive sugar consumption has now been linked to an increased risk of type II diabetes, some forms of cancer, heart disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.  There has also been a massive increase in the number of children with tooth decay, in particular due to sugary drinks, and this is now the number one reason why children are hospitalised in the UK.

Natural sugars that are found in foods such as fruit, vegetables and milk are not a problem, as these foods contain many other beneficial nutrients and the protein, fat and fibre contained within these foods reduce the effects on blood sugar levels.  It is ‘free sugars’ that are of concern, which means sugar that is added to foods in various different forms.  The latest recommendations are to eat no more than approximately six teaspoons of sugar (30g) per day for adults, or less than what is in just one can of soft drink.  For children age 4-6, the recommendation is 19g maximum (just under 4 teaspoons), age 7-10 is 24g (just under 5 teaspoons) and 11+ is 30g, the same as an adult. Presumably children under 4 should be eating very little or no sugar at all.  Most adults eat about double what is recommended, and children average around three times the recommended daily intake!  

Photo credit: Coralie Ferreira via flickr

The types of sugar included in the recommendations include all types of refined sugar, and also maple syrup and honey.  Although they are ‘natural’ they are still problematic and excess amounts will be stored as fat in the body.  They do contain a few nutrients but only in minimal amounts.  Fruit juice is also included and should be limited to one small glass per day.

So the message is we all need to reduce our sugar intake.  Here are some of the healthy sugar swaps suggested by the Change 4 Life campaign:

Instead of… Try…
Sugary cereal Plain cereal such as plain porridge, plain wholewheat biscuit cereals, or plain shredded wholewheat
Sugary drinks Water, lower-fat milk, diet, sugar-free or no-added sugar drinks
Muffin Fruit, cut-up veg, plain rice cakes, toast or bagel
Chilled dessert, yoghurt, ice cream, sugary jelly, puddings Lower-fat, lower-sugar yoghurts, fruit, tinned fruit or sugar-free jelly, tinned fruit (in juice, not syrup)

Most of these suggestions are merely replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners.  The reason why we crave sweet foods, and therefore tend to overeat them, is because they taste sweet.  Replacing one processed, sweet food with another will not solve the problem.  It is merely replacing one problem with another.  Artificial sweeteners, like sugar, are also not beneficial to health, they also do not contain any nutrients, they are merely chemicals that taste sweet.  They are also incredibly sweet, much sweeter than sugar, and there are some concerns that if you become used to the taste of artificial sweeteners, you may no longer like the taste of foods like fruit and vegetables, and will therefore end up eating more and more processed foods containing sweeteners.  And although artificial sweeteners have been approved as ‘safe’, the studies were only done using small amounts of sweetener.  We don’t really know what effect it will have on human health if consumed in large quantities over a long period of time.

Low-fat yogurt, semi-skimmed or skimmed milk are also not healthy choices (or any type of manufactured ‘low-fat’ food).  In my food technology classes at school I learned that fat makes food palatable, if you take away the fat they don’t taste as good, and low-fat foods tend to have added sugars to make them taste better.  Low-fat, low-sugar yogurt will have added sweeteners instead.  In addition, fat makes you feel fuller for longer, so you’ll be less tempted to snack.  Plus many vitamins are fat-soluble, which means that if you consume foods without the fat, your body can’t absorb the goodness.  You may as well not bother.

Instead of replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners, we need to reduce our consumption of sweet foods in general.  This is hard to do, because we are designed to crave sweet foods, but from my own experience I have found that, once you stop eating sugary foods, those cravings will subside and you can be satisfied with real, whole foods such as fruit.  Here are the real food sugar swaps that I have found helpful to reduce my sugar intake and stop the cravings:

Instead of… Try…
Sugary cereal or toast with jam Eggs, bacon, sausages, smoothies, paleo pancakes – there are loads of real food breakfast ideas.
Sugary drinks Water, herbal/fruit tea, or water flavoured with fruit. My kids like water with lemon and/or lime in.
Biscuit or muffin Handful of nuts and dried fruit, fresh fruit, veggie sticks, olives or bliss balls.  Check out some more real food snack ideas.
Ice cream Blend a frozen chopped banana with your choice of frozen berries or cherries to make healthy ice cream, or try frozen mango & full fat coconut milk, or cashew nut ice cream
Sugary jelly Homemade jelly made from fruit juice and gelatin, preferably grassfed (but remember to consume fruit juice in moderation)
Puddings Fruity puddings that need little or no sugar, like baked bananas and chocolate, cinnamon apples, or caramelized pineapple

On a final note, I’d just like to say that I don’t believe that everyone should stop eating sugar altogether.  I know there are a few popular diets out there that say no sugar, ever, and if that works for you that’s great.  There are also some people who have health problems that are triggered by sugar and have to avoid it 100% of the time.  For me personally, I think it’s nice to have a proper dessert now and then, for kids to be allowed sweets sometimes (but definitely not every day, and not as a reward either, but that’s another story), to have some chocolate at Easter and birthday cake on your birthday. I just believe that most of us would benefit from eating a lot less sugar – I know I have much more energy since I reduced my sugar intake (and processed food in general).  If you are trying to cut down your sugar consumption, good luck, it does take willpower but you will feel so much better for it, and you’ll save yourself a lot of health problems in later life!


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