How to break your family's sugar habit for good . . .
Kathy Donaghy on the 15 ways we can wean ourselves off the substance that experts reckon is as addictive as alcohol
It's all around us. We console ourselves with it. We celebrate with it. A little bit of sugar never hurt anybody, right? Well actually, wrong. All the evidence points to the fact that sugar is harming us in ways we are only beginning to understand.
We have long believed it was the fat in our foods that was causing an obesity epidemic. But now it's emerged the World Health Organization plans to update its 2003 recommendation that sugar should not account for more than 10pc of the calories in our diet following reviews of the scientific evidence of the link with obesity.
The statistics on obesity are shocking.
A quarter of all Irish children are now overweight or obese. Twenty-five per cent of adults are obese while 40pc are considered overweight. According to the country's leading obesity expert, Professor Donal O'Shea, the picture is grim.
He points out that there is very clear evidence now that we are harming our children by the way we are allowing them to consume Sugar Sweetened Drinks or SSDs.
"Sugar is addictive in the same way that alcohol is addictive. Sugar as in sucrose is less addictive but we consume it in such large amounts.
"The same parts of the brain that light up with alcohol light up with sugary drinks.
"People will not let their kids smoke a cigarette or drink a glass of wine – there has to be the same attitude to daily consumption of SSDs. These should only be consumed by children very occasionally," he says.
And while parents would agree with Professor O'Shea, it's not easy to release yourself and your family from the grip of the current sugar epidemic in which we find ourselves.
While the recommended daily intake of sugar is no more than 50g a day, many of us are consuming way in excess of that every day.
We've spoken to the experts, and here are the 15 top ways to cutting sugar out of your life one teaspoon at a time.
But be warned – it takes at least three weeks for your body to get used to such a big dietary change.
1 Next time you go for that can of Coke pick-me-up, it's worth remembering that there are close to nine spoonfuls of sugar, or 36g, in a 330ml can. Janis Morrissey, dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation, says one of the problems with fizzy drinks is they are full of "empty" calories.
We drink them and while we may be taking in quite a high number of calories, our brain doesn't register all these calories in the same way it does when we eat a meal and feel full afterwards. So swap your usual sugar-filled tipple for a herbal tea, a serving of coconut water or just plain old water.
2 Eliminate fruit juices – eat whole fruits instead.
3 Add seeds such as the flax and chia varieties to smoothies, cereals and soups. They're super healthy, nutritious and fill you up, making you feel full and less likely to snack on sugar treats.
4 But if you are still thinking about opting for a Mars bar to beat the mid-afternoon slump, remember it contains eight spoons of sugar – that's 32g. If you must have some chocolate, opt for a piece of the dark variety, which is full of antioxidants.
5 If you're craving sweetness, try a handful of berries such as blueberries for a change. Alternatively Sarah Keogh, a dietitian and member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, suggests trying a handful of nuts with a piece of chocolate or some raisins or dried fruit.
"Perhaps try some yogurt – some have more sugar than others – and you are getting your protein and calcium as well," she says.
6 Add cinnamon and vanilla to foods – these are natural sweeteners and will help beat sugar slumps.
7 Keep packets of nuts in your bag. You are less likely to need a sugar fix if you have a few nuts on standby to ward off cravings.
8 If you're cooking buns for children, add sweetness with bananas.
9 Avoid 'diet foods' – many low-fat biscuits, yogurts and cereals are high in sugar
10 Think in teaspoons – A good way to gauge the sugar content in a food is to remember that 4g is equal to one teaspoon. For example, a yogurt containing 20g of sugar equates to five teaspoons.
11 It's not just the "obvious" sugar, we need to be aware of, according to health experts, so make sure to take the time to read the labels. Sugar is often disguised by many different names such as barley malt, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, maltodextrin, malt syrup, rice syrup and many more.
Janis Morrissey of the Irish Heart Foundation says a good rule of thumb is that anything with a sugar content over 15g per 100g is considered high while anything with a sugar content of less than 5g per 100g is considered low.
She says people have to be aware that just because a product has been described as being "low in fat", this doesn't mean that it's actually low in sugar.
"If you're comparing breakfast cereals, there's a huge variation.
And while it's not practical to compare the sugar content of every product on your shopping list, it's worth doing this from time to time with the foods you consume on an everyday basis," says Morrissey.
12 Stick to wholegrain – Swap refined carbohydrates such as white bread for wholemeal alternatives that break down into sugar at a slower rate.
Morrissey says this way you also get the added dietary benefit of added fibre.
Asi well as making you feel fuller for longer, she says the brown bread/rice option won't lead to the same sugar slumps that can happen when you eat white bread.
13 Stick to whole foods where possible – processed sauces, soups and ready made meals contain lots of hidden sugars.
14 Plan your meals ahead if you can. Freeze leftovers so you can defrost something healthy quickly rather than reach for a ready-made meal from the supermarket.
15 And it's an obvious one, but avoid adding sugar to tea/coffee – wean yourself off one spoon at a time.
So now you know how to start weaning your family off sugar, but it's only natural to wonder if this new focus on the downside of sugar is really justified.
Professor O'Shea says the scientific evidence that is there towards sugar contributing to the obesity crisis is stronger now than ever before and sugar is certainly a "big player" in childhood obesity.
And he says quite simply that if you reduce sugar intake in children you will lower the impact on the child's weight.
Professor O'Shea says that everyone has to do something to tackle the worsening obesity crisis on an individual level as government policy will only go so far.
He says parents must take control and say no because we know that Irish children are consuming SSDs or sugar-sweetened drinks every single day.
Dietician Sarah Keogh points out that if you're eating large amounts of sugary foods, you are most likely not eating your fruit and vegetables or lean red meat and fish which we need for nutrients.
While she says there are many reasons for the obesity crisis, people do have to ask themselves what are the benefits of sweets and biscuits in their diets.
At a very basic level, Keogh says people should be eating a breakfast, lunch and dinner and limit snacks.
"If you are eating snacks, what are you eating? That's where people are picking up their calories.
"If you want to cut sugar, eliminate it from your tea and coffee. It takes about three weeks to get used to it," she says.
Fiona Ward, acting dietitian manager at Temple Street Children's Hospital, makes the point that if you don't buy food, you won't be tempted to eat it. She says if the packet of biscuits is not put into the shopping trolley, then it won't be an issue.
She says eating sugary foods is habit-forming.
"As a family, if you get into the habit of having a chocolate bar every day, it's not healthy behaviour. You must look at ways of changing that behaviour."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NUTRITIONIST ELSA JONES
The guide to eating healthy meals every day of the week
* Instead of having a bowl of cereal, try a cheese and ham omelette or a bowl of porridge with cinnamon for sweetness topped with chia seeds for goodness.
* Swap your usual slice of white toast smothered in marmalade or jam for a slice of wholemeal toast spread with peanut butter.
* Swap your muffin, bun or sweet treat for a handful of nuts like almonds, Brazil nuts or good-old plain peanuts. Try a slice of cheese on a cracker.
* Instead of your cup of tea and coffee with sugar, try some green, black or herbal teas or even a glass of coconut water. It has all the sweetness without the fructose and will satisfy a sugar craving.
* Try turkey or chicken on rye or wholemeal bread, salads with quinoa, brown rice and vegetables or a tuna wrap instead of that white bread sandwich.
* Oatcakes or a slice of brown toast with avocado instead of a bar of chocolate.
* Swap potatoes for brown rice a couple of times a week. If you're going for pasta, opt for the whole grain variety.
* Have chicken, turkey, lean red meat and add lots of steamed green vegetables
- Kathy Donaghy