Dossier: Healthy eating

Sugar: the sweet temptation

Like it or lump it, the data clearly shows that even eating small amounts of sugar is bad for us. How much sugar should we eat per day? Should we switch to other forms of sugar instead?

Text: Nicole Krättli; photo: Unsplash

It’s not easy to keep a handle on your sugar consumption. A typical day might include a strawberry yoghurt for breakfast, a biscuit with your coffee, a coke at lunch, half a chocolate bar to ward off the mid-day slump, and a handful of sweets while you’re watching TV in the evening. The Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office estimates that people in Switzerland eat an average of 110 grams of sugar a day. This is equivalent to a whopping 27.5 sugar cubes and is thus in line with the European average. The bad news is that every gram of sugar is one too many for our health.

Sugar causes obesity

“It’s simple: the less sugar you eat, the better”, says Michael Ristow, nutritionist and head of the Institute of Translational Medicine at ETH Zürich. And it’s true that there’s a great deal of scientific evidence showing that people who eat less sugar and fast digesting carbohydrates are less likely to suffer from obesity and high cholesterol. The number of associated illnesses such as diabetes and coronary heart disease is also significantly lower.

This link has been demonstrated in Mexico, for example. When an additional tax was introduced on sugary foods, consumption dropped considerably. As a result, the average weight, particularly of teenagers and young adults, fell sharply. What’s particularly surprising is that while the relationship between sugar and obesity has been clearly proven scientifically, a high-fat diet does not necessarily lead to extra weight. For example, although fat consumption in the USA and Europe has fallen sharply over the past 50 years, the number of overweight people has exploded at the same time.

Lactose, fructose, carbohydrates: sugar. Sugar is everywhere.

Even if you start the year with good intentions, it’s hard to cut out sugar entirely. In addition to added sugar, many foods also contain natural sugar. For example, fruit contains a lot of fructose: the more colourful a fruit is, the more fructose it contains. Milk and dairy products contain lactose (milk sugar). What’s more, most carbohydrates also contain sugar. “Although it takes longer for industrially processed carbohydrates such as white flour and pasta to release the dextrose they contain into the body, the effect is similarly harmful”, explains nutritionist Michael Ristow.

Even calorie-free sweeteners such as aspartame are not harmless. Statistics on the long-term effects are mixed, although the authors of the American Framingham Heart Study, for example, have shown that consuming sweetened drinks can increase your risk of stroke or dementia. Scientists suspect that sweeteners influence taste preferences and appetite and thus promote the consumption of sugary foods over time.

More than a temptation

However, sugar is much more than just a health dilemma. It’s the Christmas biscuits that remind you of your childhood, the birthday cake that you bake each year for your daughter, the comforting chocolate bar that you eat after an argument, and the glass of mulled wine that you drink at the Christmas market with your friends. “It’s practically impossible to cut out sugar entirely, but it’s important to think about how much you’re eating”, says Ruth Ellenberger, dietician and managing director of the nutrition centre in Zurich. The World Health Organisation recommends that you eat no more than 50 grams of added sugar a day. And you’ve already reached this amount with half a litre of Coca Cola. However, with a few tricks and a bit of discipline, you can sweeten your daily life without having to worry about your health.

The video shows you the best ways to replace sugar.

Fight the sugar

Ruth Ellenberger, dietician and managing director of the nutrition centre in Zurich, explains how you can reduce your sugar consumption without having to eliminate sweet treats entirely.

  • Sweeten food yourself: Instead of buying sweetened products, it’s a good idea to sweeten unsweetened foods yourself. This shows you exactly how much sugar you’re eating and helps you decide how much you really need.
  • Record what you eat: Making a mark in your diary or a writing a note on your mobile phone each time you eat something sweet will show you after just a few days how often you treat yourself and provide motivation to reduce your consumption.
  • Low-sugar alternatives: Although low-sugar products should only be eaten in moderation, they are still a good alternative if your desire for something sweet is stronger than your willpower.
  • Hidden sugar: Soft drinks, breakfast cereals, fruit yoghurts and fruit juice are all packed with sugar. If you can stay away from these you will reduce your sugar consumption significantly.
  • Better to eat sweet treats straight after a meal: If you want to eat something sweet, it’s best to do so straight after your main meal. A meal of vegetables or salad and meat, fish, eggs or tofu with a wholegrain side dish acts as a brake for the sugar in your chosen dessert when it’s absorbed into the blood in the intestine.