It’s become the latest hot topic in the ongoing debate about healthy eating. Is sugar bad for you? That’s the big nutrition question of the moment, with many organisations warning we consume far too much and it’s damaging our health.
With more and more of us becoming overweight and obese, of course, this is an area of real concern. But the truth is that it’s a more complicated issue than we might think – and informing ourselves about balanced eating and our dietary needs could make an enormous difference to our overall health.
Supermarkets and food manufacturers and the public are being urged to reduce added sugar in their products, and with good reason. Recent TV documentaries have caused alarm about our sugar intake as a society while overconsumption of sugar and the ‘empty calories’ it brings to our diets has been linked to serious health issues like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
But as a matter of fact, we all need a certain amount of sugar in our diets – the key is to know which ones to avoid.
As is often the case with food, it comes down to context and common sense. And at a time where confusion over the sugar debate reigns, one top dietician says that informing yourself can be empowering.
“Food is to be enjoyed – there are few greater pleasures than sitting with family and friends and sharing a meal. But on the other hand, we do have a real obesity problem,” according to Louise Reynolds of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute.
The key when it comes to sugars, she says, is to know the difference between your intrinsic and extrinsic sugars.
Intrinsic sugars are those which occur within the cellular walls of food and do so naturally – for example, the sweetness of a banana or that lovely flavour that comes out in sweet potatoes.
These sugars in your fruit and veg are released more slowly into the bloodstream and are part of a food that has numerous other nutritional benefits like dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Extrinsic sugars, on the other hand, are added sugars that are contained in, for example, cakes, biscuits and sweets, and usually, tend to be low in any other beneficial nutrients.
“We all need some glucose in our diet – it’s the energy we burn to keep everything going,” explained Reynolds. “The key is to source intrinsic sugars that are found in foods that have an overall strong nutritional value.”
The sweet potato, she agrees is a great example. They’re rich in vitamins A and C, several minerals including potassium, are low in fat and a good source of dietary fibre.
It’s all about moderation, and as a general tip, Reynolds recommends eating “a rainbow” of different coloured fruits and vegetables as it’s a great way of helping ensure you’re getting a wide variety of nutrients in your diet.
Sweet potatoes, for example, are rich in carotenoids, the orange pigment found also in carrots, which act as antioxidants in the body and help overall good health. The strong pigment in blueberries, beetroot, peppers and so on provide other benefits.
“Don’t be afraid to mix it up – eat a variety of foods,” says Reynolds. “And aim for foods containing intrinsic sugars that have a lot of nutrition in there.”