You’re too smart to think that the alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat in an Irish coffee are the essential food groups. But if you’re watching your weight, you’ve probably wondered about limiting the sugar in your diet.
“The only way to lose weight is to take in less energy from food and drink than your body burns,” says registered dietician Carol Browne. But will cutting down on sugar help? It seems the answer depends on you and your current diet. For example, if you take a spoonful of sugar in a cup of tea twice a day and consume a bit of jam now and then, you won’t prune your energy intake by much. But if you down gallons of sports or cold drinks daily, you’re bound to lose weight if you ditch them.
The truth is that although too much sugar isn’t good for your health, including a little in your weight-loss plan makes you feel less deprived and more likely to stick to it.
Carbohydrates in the form of sugars and starches are essential nutrients, but your body can’t distinguish whether blood glucose is derived from table sugar, fruit or brown rice.
“You don’t need table sugar at all, but you do need sugars that come as part of the package in vegetables and fruits,” says Browne. US Dietary Reference Intakes suggest a maximum of 25 percent of energy from total sugars. To put that in perspective, the daily energy requirement of a 30-year-old man who is 1.8m tall and weighs a healthy 73kg is 11,000kJ. Twenty-five percent of this would be 160g of sugars.
All Sugars Are Equal
Although different in structure, sugars all provide the same amount of energy. The main ones are glucose, fructose and sucrose. Table sugar, refined from sugar cane, is mostly sucrose. Veggies contain a mix of all three, and some – like potatoes and peas – contain starches. Most are quite low in sugars and hence energy. That’s why they’re such great fill-you-up, not fatten-you-up foods. Fruits also have a mix of sugars. Most people think they’re all fructose, but they contain glucose and sucrose too (there’s 16g of sucrose in a 150g mango, while apples are higher in fructose).
Here are three options on how to cut down on your sugar intake.
1 Eat fewer sweetened foods, especially if you’re eating too much sugar in total, or at the expense of balanced meals. “Switch from sweetened cold drinks or fruit juices to water,” says Browne.
2 Use other sugars. “Refined fructose is an alternative to cane sugar, but scientists are cautious due to possible increased blood triglycerides (fats),” she says. “Rather use small amounts of cane sugar in a sensible way.” A new sugar causing excitement is isomaltulose, which is digested slowly, satisfying for longer.
3 Use products sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners or polyols (aspartame,acesulfame-K, cyclamate, isomalt, sorbitol). “Scaremongers talk about the potential health risks of some non-nutritive sweeteners,” says Browne, “but the bottom line is to use them occasionally.”
Fruit coolers, port, sherry and liqueurs are relatively high in sugar, while sugar in beer and spirits has been fermented or distilled out. Don’t, however, go thinking this is the answer to all your problems – they still have energy (kJ) from carbohydrates. But you should be more concerned about the impact of alcohol on your weight than sugar: alcohol is more energy dense (29kJ/g) than carbohydrates or sugars (17kJ/g).
To lose weight, switch from beer (560kJ per 340ml can) to low-alcohol beer (390kJ) and choose sugar-free mixers like water, soda, light tonic or ginger ale with spirits. Stick to no more than two drinks a day: your body burns alcohol before it burns fat, so the less alcohol you throw at it, the sooner it can start working on the flab.