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Nearly two-thirds of Australian adults are either overweight or obese. Dieticians suspect our appetite for all things sweet is a major factor. Australians also consume an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar a day so it's little wonder why so many struggle to maintain a healthy weight. We talk to the experts to find out how you can go about cutting down sugar from your diet.

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Sunday, February 25, 2018 - 10:00
7 min 40 sec

Human beings are born with an innate desire for sweetness since birth. The first taste of our mother’s breast milk is sweet. That's why we’re very much hooked on a sweet taste according to Professor Timothy Gill from Sydney University. He specialises in nutrition, obesity and chronic disease prevention. Professor Gill recommends checking the food labels in products to monitor the amount of sugar we eat.

“When we want to determine how much sugar’s in a product, then we need to look at both how much sugar there is per 100 grams, and the total weight we’re going to be consuming. So, we know generally, there’s about 4 grams of sugar in every teaspoon. So, if a product on the shelf says there is 10 grams per 100 grams of sugar in this product, and we’re going to be eating 250 grams of that product, then you can see it’s going to equate to over 10 teaspoons of sugar just in that one product.”  

Professor Timothy Gill from Sydney University finds that migrant communities such as the Arabic and African communities are more prone to higher sugar intake.

It’s essential that new migrants understand the types of food they purchase and the impact these could have on their health.  

“Recent migrants, when they come to Australia, sometimes aren’t aware of the amount of sugar that's in some of our snack products. They believe them to be healthy. They look healthy. There are things like muesli bars that seem to be good for their health, certain biscuits and cakes that seem to be made of the right sort of products, but they all contain a very large amount of sugar.”

The WHO recommended that you sugar intake should only comprise 5 per cent of your daily total calories. Certainly a challenging task for those who like their sweets, but for 77-year-old David Fam, it’s a piece of cake. He’s pretty much lived a sugar-free life for over 20 years since being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

“Even two to five per cent is sweet enough for a lot of stuff, you know, if you read the label in packaged foods. So, that’s very very important, I find, because, there are certain foods, if you look carefully, can go up to 44 to 50 per cent - that means half the container is pure sugar. That actually should be avoided by people even without the diabetes.”

Brisbane-based dietician Michelle Tong notices that the Chinese community tends to go for biscuits and crackers as a healthier option.

“I guess it’s a yes and no depending on what kind of crackers, like, if it’s more, got a lot of seeds and grains in it, that's probably a better option, but most of them tend to choose like a sweeter vision like biscuits and crackers, and you know, choosing that as a snack tend to then, really increase their sugar intake from that, and instead, they could probably choose their fruit or yoghurt as a snack option rather.”

Dietician and nutritionist Alan Barclay is author of “Managing Type 2 Diabetes” and “The Ultimate Guide to Sugars & Sweeteners”. He says we need to be wary of the free sugars that contribute to empty calories, tooth decay, and chewing problems. These include free sugars such as table sugars, rice malt syrup, agave syrup and honey.

The World Health Organisation  recommended that you sugar intake should only comprise 5 per cent of your daily total calories.

“Most of them have next to no minerals, vitamins or dietary fibre so they’re just providing energy. And as we get older generally we’re less active, and we lose muscle mass, there’s this concept called ‘sarcopenia’ where our muscles decrease and organs decrease so we have to make sure that the foods and drinks that we have are more nutritious otherwise we’re going to put on weight. And that in turn, if we gain too much weight can increase the risks of things like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”

It’s important to bear in mind that natural forms of sugar promoted as being healthy are still sugar at the end of the day. Alan Barclay’s referring to the likes of honey and raw sugar. He urges people not to be fooled by what’s marked as a better alternative.

“So do other alternatives that are being promoted as being better than table sugar. So, rice malt syrup, for example, is also considered to be free sugar, as of course, is glucose or its other name, ‘dextrose’, and it’s been pushed a lot by popular authors in recent years as being better than sugar, but they’re not. By definition under the WHO guidelines, they are free sugars and people should not be consuming those. Instead, they’re no better. They provide essentially the same amounts of kilojoules, they’re devoid of dietary fibres, vitamins and minerals.”

The most common source of free sugars in the diet of Australians over fifty is sugar-sweetened drinks. A can of soft drink can contain as much as nine teaspoons of sugar, but what we tend to overlook is the sugar we add in our tea and coffee.

He recommends artificial sweeteners as a simple and effective way of decreasing your sugar intake, and that applies to the type of sweetener you put in your baking as well.    

“You can buy not only the pure intense sweeteners but there’s actually a couple of really good blends on the market that are half sugar and half intense sweeteners. The latest ones containing Stevia, and they’re really good for cooking or baking, because, of course, sugar not only provides sweetness, but it adds bulk, and it browns the food, and it gives it a nice texture. So, by using these blends, they’re usually about 50/50. You can still get some of the textural benefits of the added sugars, the free sugars, but you’re not having anywhere near as much calories there.”

You may opt for fruit juices as a healthier choice to soft drinks, but that’s not the case, according to Michelle Tong. What’s better than drinking juices, is eating the actual fruit for its natural sugar. She recommends that people should have one to two pieces a day.

“With regards to juice, it is, if you think about it, is quite concentrated. So, probably take a little bit more fruit to make a glass of juice. So, for example, for a glass of juice, you may need about 3 oranges to make the actual juice in a glass, whereas, if someone is to sit down and have has a piece of fruit, they may not have three oranges in one go.”

Professor Timothy Gill says it’s important for people to make the distinction between added sugar and natural sugar.

“Because we don’t want to encourage particularly older adults, who have a very poor intake of fresh fruit and vegetables to be reducing their intake of fruit and vegetables on beliefs that they contain sugar.”

As for David Fam who’s survived without sweet treats all these years, he’s actually managed to live a more enriched life by eating healthy, and staying active. He goes for a yoga session and two rounds of table tennis a week, as well as maintaining the one and a quarter acres of land around his house.

“You can have sugar you can have carbs. If you’re constantly moving and having exercises you’ll find your sugar level won’t be high because it will be burnt off.”

For more information on how to eat well with diabetes, visit the Diabetes Australia website.