Nutracheck's views on the latest sugar and carbs debate

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 26 Jun, 2014

Sugar is dominating the headlines once again so we thought it would be useful to give you a quick summary of why this is big news again, what the background is, and what it really means to everyday diet and health advice.

Science and Policy

Two different reports have been published today which have sparked the media frenzy. Although both are looking into carbohydrates, including sugar, they are very different in terms of their remits and outcomes. One is a scientific review of all the evidence linking carbohydrates (in all forms) to health and disease, whilst the other is specifically looking into sugar reduction and how this could benefit public health.

Here is our snapshot view of what each paper is trying to achieve.

Report 1 – The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) Report on Carbohydrates and Health

SACN is a government body comprising of a group of leading academics, scientists and medical professionals whose job it is to review scientific evidence relating diet and nutrition to health.

This report was commissioned to review what we know about carbohydrates as a whole – including complex carbohydrates such as starches, wholegrain and fibre, and simple carbohydrates including glucose, fructose, sucrose (sugar as we know it) and lactose, and how they can affect our health either in a positive or a negative way. They looked at outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, Type 2 Diabetes and cancers, and whether carbohydrates affected these either in a negative or a positive way.

Report 2 – Public Health England (PHE) Report on Sugar Reduction

Public Health England is a government body established in April 2013. It brings together public health specialists from more than 70 organisations, working with national and local government, industry and the NHS to protect and improve the nation's health and support healthier choices.

The action paper released today is looking into the different ways that the intake of free sugars (added sugar, sugar in fruit juices and sugar in honey) in the UK diet could be reduced. The report is based on the evidence found in the SACN review on carbohydrates.

What are the key messages?

  1. Carbohydrates are an important food group that have both positive and negative health associations e.g. fibre and a decreased risk of heart disease; sugar and an increased risk of tooth decay
  2. As a population we eat too much sugar and this is bad for us – we should all be trying to find ways to cut down on the amount of sugar in our diets
  3. The dietary recommendation for the amount of free sugar that we should eat has been halved to 5% of total dietary energy
  4. Fibre has a positive impact on health so we should be eating more – the dietary recommendation has been increased from 24g per day to 30g per day
  5. The consumption of sugar sweetened beverages (e.g fizzy drinks, squashes) should be minimised by children and adults
  6. '5 a day' advice will be reviewed to see whether fruit juice should continue to be included, and if so, in what quantity.
  7. Other ideas such as taxation on sugary drinks, advertising bans, changes in labelling, working on reformulation of products and healthier promotions in supermarkets are also being discussed.

But what does this all mean?

Sugar is big news at the moment – there's no doubt about that! We are eating too much sugar as a population in the UK, and there are some associations with some foods and drinks, and an increased risk of disease. However there remains very little evidence directly linking sugar intake per se, with diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In fact it is diet and lifestyle OVERALL that is to blame...too many calories, being overweight and obese, not being active enough and smoking to name a few.

That said there is always room for improvement, and as a nation we are eating more than the recommended amount of sugar in our diets. Cutting down on sugar is certainly something we should all look at. Do you have too many sugary drinks? Do you add sugar to our tea and coffee? How many cakes and biscuits are you eating? But this must be done in the context of an overall healthy and balanced diet. Making simple swaps in your diet can make all the difference. Reduce your sugar and fat intake and introduce healthier options such as more complex carbohydrates.

Here are some top tips:

  • Limit sugary drinks in your diet – choose Diet versions or, better still, replace with water
  • Swap 'white' refined carbohydrates for unrefined more complex, fibre rich versions e.g. white bread to wholemeal, rice based breakfast cereal to wholegrain breakfast cereal
  • Cut down on biscuits and cakes – choose healthier snacks instead such as a handful of nuts, rice cakes, veggie sticks or crispbreads
  • Replace sugar in tea and coffee with a sweetener (or cut it out altogether if you can!)
  • Increase the amount of fibre in your diet – choose wholegrain breads and cereals, swap for brown rice or pasta, have plenty of fruit and vegetables

The bottom line

Making small changes in your diet can make all the difference. Nutracheck is about balance – we call it the 80:20 healthy 80% of the time, then you can let your hair down a bit the other 20%. No food is banned but making healthier choices most of the time means you'll be sticking to your calorie allowance and seeing the weight loss you are hoping for. Plus if you are eating less high calorie (sugary) foods to stay within your reduced calorie allowance, you will naturally be consuming less sugar.

Reducing the amount of sugar in your diet is just one way to become healthier. Combining sugar reduction with a reduction in fat, an increase in more complex carbohydrates and fibre, plenty of fruit and veg, plenty of low fat dairy foods and as much activity as you can manage will set you on the road to health.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.