The UK’s sweet tooth: Are we sugar-coating the truth?

The UK’s sweet tooth: Are we sugar-coating the truth?

Food lovers in the UK are spoilt for choice, with the abundance of flavours, tastes and treats from all over the world - all conveniently close to home. However, the nation’s love for eating comes at a cost to health – with recent government figures showing 60% of adults being overweight or obese1.

According to our recent Health Check Report2, almost three quarters of people in the UK don’t know how many calories they consume daily. More than half of people think they’re in good health or say it’s sometimes too expensive to eat healthily, although 24% don’t understand nutritional labelling.

The NHS states over-eating large amounts of processed foods, and drinking too many sugary drinks is linked to obesity3. Our report shows that almost nine in 10 people agree that as a nation we all need to look after our own health more, to relieve pressure on our NHS. The government’s putting into place a ban of online advertising for junk-food aimed at children in July 2017, and introducing the Sugar Tax in 2018.

We spoke to Victoria Taylor, Senior Dietician for the British Heart Foundation, who told us: “Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain. This contributes to a range of health problems, including: cardiovascular disease and conditions like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.”

We wanted to find out more about sugar: What is it? How does it impact our bodies? How much is too much?

What is sugar?

Sugar is a carbohydrate, a natural ingredient that provides energy for the body4. Glucose is the most common form of sugar, which can be found in foods and is produced by the body to help it function.

Types of sugar

Adults in the UK are advised to consume no more than 30g of added sugars to food a day (seven sugar cubes) – which amounts to 5% of energy needed daily. To see how much energy is in food or drinks, look for either kilojoules/kJ or calories/kcal in the nutritional values table.

Sugar and the body: what happens?

Treating yourself now and again isn’t harmful, but consuming large quantities on a daily basis, without burning off the additional energy, will lead to long-term poor health. We spoke to Dr. Glenys Jones, Registered Nutritionist from the Association for Nutrition about how sugar impacts the body, and we also looked at how it effects our minds56.

The Body

  • Weight: Weight gain can be caused by excessive eating of high-energy foods and not burning it off, which then stores as fat.
  • Heart: Taylor highlights heart risks tied to weight gain: “Obesity is not only a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), but it also puts us at increased risk of developing other risk factors for CVD such as high blood pressure.”
  • Liver: Emma Elvin, Clinical Advisor for Diabetes UK describes how this stored fat sits around the liver and pancreas, which “can lead to many health complications, including insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.”
  • Teeth: Tooth decay can be caused by an acid produced in your mouth, used to break down sugar from food and drink. Dr. Jones highlighted the alarming rate at which children need dental care due to high sugar consumption.

The Mind

  • Cravings: Over-active reward pathways in the brain caused by eating too much sugar can increases sugar tolerance, meaning cravings are more likely.
  • Memory and Learning Skills: A diet high in sugar has shown to slow down brain functionality, preventing learning and memory.
  • Depression and Anxiety: Sugary products mess with the ‘neurotransmitters’ and blood sugar levels that control mood stability.

Why are we consuming too much?

Treats, treats, treats

Dr. Jones points out, “foods such as cakes, biscuits and confectionery are often regarded by many as treats, yet they’re now often consumed on a daily basis.”

The price is right

Access to large quantities of low-cost, energy-dense foods has impacted how food is priced. Taylor highlights that over the years, “food has become more available and cheaper and we are encouraged by increasingly sophisticated advertising and marketing techniques to buy, and then eat, more.”

Just a spoonful of sugar

It’s easy to consume extra sugar daily, as Dr. Jones describes: “Flavoured coffees, large smoothies and on-the-go snacks are a regular sight during the morning.” She provides an example:

A trip to the coffee shop for a morning coffee and muffin could easily result in someone consuming over 90g, or 22 teaspoons, of sugars!

Elvin points out that consumers should watch out for ‘healthy alternatives’ to sugar, like honey or maple syrup as they also contain ‘free sugars’.

Average daily sugar intake

Take back control of your sweet tooth

Reducing sugar consumption can be difficult. Our health report revealed more than a quarter of children, parents and grandparents consuming one treat or more every day, and almost half of parents use treats as a reward for well-behaved children7.

We’ve put together a few tips from our experts, to help people take control of their sugar consumption and understand their diet.

Keep a food diary

Taylor recommends documenting what’s consumed daily, to know where cutbacks are needed. “It’s common for us to underestimate our intake of food – the odd sweet here and there might not even register and it’s easy to forget about the calories that are coming from drinks.”

Check the packaging

Checking nutritional values on packaging is key to understanding our food says Dr. Jones. “Many people make relatively instant decisions on which foods to put in their baskets, having this information at a glance on the front of a pack can help people to select a healthier basket.”

Make cut backs

It sounds simple, but it’s difficult to kick the habit at first. Taylor suggests making diet changes slowly. “Think of healthier alternatives you can have instead to fill the gap and make changes gradually so that you can get used to them over time.”

Planned portion sizes

Dr. Jones recommends: “Reduce portion sizes and plan what you take to work and on days out in advance, so that high sugars and high calorie foods and drinks are only consumed on an occasional basis, and helps to reduce sugars intakes.”

Focus on your whole diet, not just sugar

Elvin suggests consumers should look beyond sugar consumption. “The whole population should be eating a healthy balanced diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, contains some wholegrains, lean protein, low fat and sugar dairy and reduced amounts of fat, sugar and salt.”

Taylor highlighted how the industry, manufacturers, and other brand associates need to educate nation on what it is they consume on a daily basis.

We need to continue to help consumers to understand what is in the foods they are buying though front of pack nutritional information that is easy to understand and ensure the marketing of food and drink is responsible.

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Additional Sources

[1]House of Commons Obesity Statistics – December 2016
[2]Aviva’s Health Check Report 2016 – Pages 2-5
[7]Aviva’s Health Check Report 2016 – Page 3

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