How much sugar is it safe to eat?

If you’re a biscuit-lover, the recent news that you need to cut your sugar intake may have hit you hard. But just how much do you need to cut out? And how do you do it?

While we may know in theory that a balanced, healthy diet (as well as plenty of sleep and regular exercise) will give us the energy we need to fulfill our roles as mum, partner, housekeeper and career or business woman, there comes a time when we all depend on a biscuit or sweet drink to give us a much-needed energy boost.

But now we’re told that, rather than fat, sugar is the true diet villain and we need to drastically reduce our intake. But what does that mean? No more homemade cake with our morning coffee? No more chilled cordials on a hot day? And no more sneaking the kids’ Easter chocolate after they’ve gone to bed?

To help make sense of the new rules for sweet foods, Sandra Roycroft-Davis from Thinking Slimmer explains what the new ‘safe’ amounts of sugar are, reveals just how much hidden sugar is in our diet, and explains how you can learn to overcome your sweet tooth simply by retraining your mind.

How much sugar is it safe to eat?

The recent advice from the World Health Organisation that we’re supposed to reduce our daily sugar intake by half has left many people more than a little confused. How do we measure how much sugar we’re eating now? Trying to find the answer to that is so exhausting you might need a cup of hot, sweet tea afterwards!

I did a very unscientific survey among friends and their guesses of what the new suggested limit should be ranged from 50 grams a day to 100 grams. No one even got close to the correct answer, which seems to be about 25 grams.

I say ‘seems to be’ because even the newspapers got in a muddle. The Telegraph said the new limit was seven teaspoons a day, while the Mail said it was five. They were both right – it’s seven for a man and five for a woman. Approximately.

However, thinking in terms of spoonfuls is unhelpful because people then tend to gauge their sugar intake by what they add to hot drinks or breakfast cereals. In fact, most of our sugar is consumed in cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks. For example a can of Coca Cola contains 35 grams. And here’s some even more bad news – sugar can also be found in foods you might assume are sugar-free, such as tinned chilli and ready-meal noodles.

If you are concerned with dietary restrictions and interested in understanding more about the contents of sugar, you can find out if sugar is gluten free to make more informed decisions about your diet.

Sugar addition is all in your mind

Those who say people should show self-control and eat less, or those like the Chief Medical Officer who say we should tax sugar to drive down consumption, are missing the real point – addiction to sweet tastes is a problem of the mind.

Fifty years ago, food scientists discovered that corn could be turned into high fructose syrup that was 20% sweeter than sugar and a third cheaper. Today fructose is in everything from ketchup and burger buns to processed meals and pizza toppings. Most of all it’s used in fizzy drinks like Coke and Pepsi.

The problem is that fructose plays havoc with the appetite by suppressing the natural hormone leptin, which is supposed to tell the brain “You’ve had enough, you can stop eating now.” So because your brain’s fuel gauge has been disabled, you keep filling up – with disastrously predictable consequences.

Dr Robert Lustig, of the University of California, explains: “Fructose makes the brain think you’re starving, even when you’ve just eaten. Food manufacturers know the sweeter they make it the more you will buy.”

How you can train your brain to eat less sugar

However, it is possible to ‘rewire’ your brain, and reverse the leptin suppression caused by fructose by sending a ‘full’ signal through your neuro-circuits so you eat less and even leave a little on your plate. (You can retrain your brain to stop wanting sugar by going cold turkey, or get professional help to stop craving it.)

The power of the mind to affect our bodies in this way has been proved by Dr Tony Goldstone, of the Imperial College Faculty of Medicine. By scanning the brains of people who are being shown photographs of high-calorie food such as chocolate cake or pizza he can see which parts of the brain are being activated. “High sugar foods activate the brain’s reward system,” he says.

“What food looks like, smells like, tastes like, sounds like and even its crunchiness all influence the brain’s reaction. These factors combine in the brain to influence whether we reach out and buy something or choose it in the shop or restaurant. This is what the food industry spends a lot of time developing.”

We should ask ourselves what would be the most effective way of cutting down our sugar intake – taxing people who buy processed convenience food and drink gallons of Coca Cola, or passing laws which would force food manufacturers to cut down on the hidden sugar they sell to us?

Since the multi-billion pound food industry carries a lot more clout than consumers there’s no prizes for guessing the answer. After all, a teaspoon of sugar helps the profits go round.

Sandra is the founder of Thinking Slimmer. She uses various neuroscience techniques in her Slimpod weight loss products to alter the brain’s reward system so that the pleasure no longer comes from burgers, chocolate or sugar but from making healthier choices.