Trying to forego sugar is a struggle, because it’s sneakily hidden in many ‘healthy’ things. With the season for festive feasting around the corner, here’s a guide for South Africans seeking to cut down on the sweet stuff. 

Dr Marion Morkel, Chief Medical Officer at Sanlam, says, “A Harvard study identified on average 10 to 30 g per serving of hidden sugar in foodstuffs. Common festive food examples include sauces and salad dressings. All of these added sugars contribute to diseases of lifestyle and, if you’ve already been diagnosed with a glucose metabolism illness (e.g. insulin resistance or diabetes), it could be a reason you’re struggling to get your disease under control.” 

Dr Morkel’s sugar breakdown: What you need to know:

Not all sugars are equal. There are naturally occurring sugars and ‘free sugars’ (added sugars), including sucrose – aka refined table sugar. Natural sugars, like fructose in fruit, tend to be lower in calories and sodium. Added sugars (like extra sugar in flavoured yoghurt) are high in calories, which can cause a blood sugar spike that prompts a ‘high’, followed by a ‘crash’.  In the long-term, consistently having high blood glucose levels can contribute to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and more.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that free sugars should only comprise 5% of daily calorie intake. That’s about 30 g in total. For children, this goes down to 19 g – or less, ideally. 

How to spot hidden sugars:

It’s not easy! Reading the nutritional information on food and beverage items takes effort. Often, food brands make this information purposefully jargon filled. Johns Hopkinsfound added sugars have over 60 different names! It suggests you: 

–          Look out for the word syrup (corn syrup, malt syrup, golden syrup, maple syrup…)

–          Look out for words ending in ‘ose’ (sucrose, fructose, maltose, dextrose…)

–          Look out for the word sugar (raw sugar, coconut sugar, brown sugar…)

Panela (unrefined whole cane sugar), honey, agave and molasses are also added sugars. As a rule, the higher up an ingredient features in a list, the more of it you can expect.

BBC also suggests you look out for ‘sugar as carbs’ (includes natural and added sugars) on the nutritional information. It advises that less than 5 g per 100 g is low, while over 22.5 g per 100 g is high.

Spend some time reading the labels at the store. Use the Hopkins guide to spot sugar in all its aliases and try to memorise the biggest culprits, so you can avoid these foods going forward. 

Heres a guide to common festive foods:

This uses estimations from fitness app My Fitness Pal, based on a popular food wholesaler in SA:

–          Christmas pudding: 42 g sugar per 100 g serving: HIGH

–          Christmas cake: 60 g per 110 g serving: HIGH

–          Cranberry sauce: 4 g sugar per 10 g serving: HIGH

–          Mince pies: 27 g sugar per 60 g serving: HIGH

–          Trifle: 11 g sugar per 100 g serving: Moderate

–          Brown sugar and pineapple glazed ham: 19 g sugar per 113 g serving: Moderate

–          Stuffing: 2 g sugar per 40 g serving: Low

–          Gravy: 1 g sugar per 100 ml serving: Low

–          Roast potatoes: 1 g sugar per 140 g serving: Low

Top health tips for sugar ditchers and diabetics this festive?

Don’t sweat the small stuff – one chocolate isn’t an issue. Just try and ensure everything in your diet remains low carb. If you become overly strict with what you eat, there’s the danger you’ll have one forbidden snack and then abandon the whole diet. If you make a mistake, move on and start again. 

Offer to bring healthy alternatives to festive celebrations. That way, you have something you know is low in added sugar and you can share this option with others, so you feel part of the event. 

Other health considerations for the holidays?

–          It is always a good idea to have a good general health check-up before the start of the season

–          If you’re diabetic, ensure you have adequate medication and testing strips

–          Stress levels can also cause poor glucose control. Enjoy the family without taking on any stress

–          Check your medical aid and dread disease insurance is up to date

–          Keep exercising! Mix it up. Swim and play outdoors with the family and encourage physical games to keep moving

“You do not need money to start exercising or making healthier food choices. Start small. Park the car a bit further from the entrance to the shopping mall. Take the stairs instead of the escalator. Replace your sweet tin with a nut or trail-mix tin. Make the effort to read the label and bypass foods with high sugar content. Ultimately, these decisions may prevent lifestyle-linked diseases that are costly in many ways, including potentially higher insurance premiums.”

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