What is sugar doing to your body?

Holding sugar cubes

Dr Ali Hasan, Vitality Clinical Operations Director, explains what sugar is, the effect on your body and the risks of eating too much…

Sugar is everywhere – and often, you won’t even be aware you are eating it. Being armed with the facts about what exactly sugar is, where you find it and what it does will help you decide whether you could be having too much – and if you are, what to do about it.

What is sugar?

Sugar is one of a number of sources of carbohydrates. Carbs form one of the main food groups you need as part of a balanced diet (in addition to protein and fats). Carbs are a source of energy and, like all dietary sources of energy, these need to be taken in the right amounts. Too little carbohydrate can lead to low blood sugar levels (known as hypoglycaemia), which can make you irritable and lack concentration. Hypoglycaemia is rare in the absence of medical conditions such as diabetes and if one is eating regularly. Too much carbohydrate can result in physiological changes that, in the short term, can make you sleepy and, in the long term, can lead to diabetes as well as other health problems. Eating too much sugar is a major problem in the UK and other countries.

Are some carbs better than others?

As well as sugar, starchy foods such as bread, rice, pasta and couscous are high in carbs. But whereas sugar is a simple carbohydrate, meaning the body usually digests it quickly, causing blood sugar levels to spike (and subsequently drop), complex carbohydrates such as starches take longer to break down – resulting in a slower, more moderated rise in blood sugar levels. Another advantage of starchy foods, particularly wholegrain varieties, is that they contain more nutrients than sugar and more dietary fibre (a source of carbohydrate in itself).

How much sugar is it OK to eat?

It is recommended that 50 per cent of our energy comes from carbs and the rest from fat (35 per cent) and protein (15 per cent). Of the carbs, it had been recommended that 80 per cent should be complex and 20 per cent simple (i.e. sugars) – meaning sugar should not make up more than 10 per cent of total energy. But last year, a major new report on carbohydrates and health concluded that sugar should not make up more than five per cent of our total energy intake, halving the amount previously recommended. So why the reduction? Well, since a report of this kind was last undertaken – in the 1990s – more and more evidence has shown that sugar can have a detrimental impact on our health. So that means most of our carbohydrate intake should be in the form of complex carbohydrates rather than sugar.

Click here to read our tips on reducing the amount of sugar you eat.

How much sugar do we eat?

The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey showed that not only do we Brits consume more than the recommended amount of sugar but also, our intake of fibre is below recommendations.

As a population, sugar makes up between 12-15 per cent of our energy instead of the recommended five per cent – and for some individuals, the figure is even higher.

“Sugar makes up between 12-15% of our energy instead of the recommended 5%”

– Dr Ali Hasan, Vitality Clinical Operations Director

Are all types of sugar the same?

Some sugar is naturally present in foods – such as lactose in milk and milk products, and fructose in fruits. In other cases it is added to all sorts of foods and drinks in various (sometimes concentrated) forms. The most obvious ones are sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks, but sugar is also hidden in lots of everyday staples such as bread, cereals, soup and yoghurt. Even a tablespoon of ketchup may contain a teaspoon of sugar. Then there’s the sugar we add ourselves.

It’s all these added sugars – together with sugar found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juice – that we often eat too much of. Two teaspoons in a cup of tea three times a day amounts to almost a quarter of a kilogram of added sugar a week. And as for fizzy drinks, just one can of Coca-Cola exceeds the total recommended maximum sugar intake for a whole day. Added sugar is just empty calories – it adds absolutely no value in terms of nutrition.

What’s wrong with too much sugar?

Well for one thing, consuming too much sugar will rot your teeth. This happens as the sugars in food and drink react with the bacteria in plaque, forming acids that soften and dissolve the enamel.

A bigger issue is that eating excess sugar can lead to increased weight – and half the population in the UK is already overweight or obese. Normally, any sugar the body doesn’t need immediately is converted from glucose into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles to use later. But once these stores are full, any excess glycogen is converted into body fat. If you are overweight or obese, you are more likely to develop coronary heart disease than someone who is a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can also raise your blood cholesterol levels, increase your blood pressure and increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes. If you have diabetes, you are five times more likely to develop heart disease or stroke. High blood glucose levels can also cause nerve damage, affecting fingers and toes for instance.

The list continues – there is a risk of kidney disease and even kidney failure. And there are links between Type 2 diabetes and an increased risk of pancreatic, liver and endometrial cancer.

So wouldn’t it be better to avoid all of this if you can?

Am I already at risk?

Vitality members can find out about your glucose levels by having a test as part of a Vitality Healthcheck. You can do this at selected pharmacies across the country like LloydsPharmacy. Alternatively, you can ask your GP to arrange a test for you. You’ll need to fast beforehand to ensure an accurate result.

Even if your glucose levels are currently okay, this can still change over time so keeping an eye on sugar intake is key.

What diet should I choose?

We don’t recommend any specific diets and we don’t recommend cutting out carbs altogether – cutting out any food group could put you at risk of missing out on vital nutrients.

Some people choose a diet where they cut sugar to very low levels and if you want to do this, there’s no need to worry that you won’t be getting enough sugar. Sugar deficiency is rarely an issue for anyone who has regular access to food unless they have certain medical conditions.

The key is to make a few simple changes to improve your diet by reducing your sugar intake and avoiding added sugars  – doing this can make you feel healthier, give you more energy and make you more productive – so why not challenge sugar head-on today?