The Sugar Debate: sticky business…

There has been much hype surrounding the so-called modern-day demon of western diets, sugar. High profile journalists, chefs and other media personalities have made extraordinary amounts of money promoting best-selling books on the dangers of sugar and our immediate need to eliminate all sugar from our diet. Books like I Quit Sugar and (her many spin-offs) by journalist, Sarah Wilson, Sweet Poison by father and lawyer David Gillespie and That Sugar Book by Damon Gameau all preach the virtues of a sugar-free world. Interestingly, all authors hold no qualifications related to nutrition but promote that eliminating sugar from the diet as the answer to overcoming obesity and securing better health. However, organisations like Nutrition Australia, Diabetes Australia and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are at odds with this viewpoint. Based on extensive, high level scientific research these organisations consider that a reduction in added sugars through the consumption of processed foods, but not an elimination of sugar, is part of a healthy diet that will help promote physical and mental wellbeing. 


According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines published by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) the stance on sugar intake is: Consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars. The belief is that small amounts of sugar in the diet is not detrimental to health and the addition of small amounts of sugar to foods (like jam spread on wholemeal toast) can increase the enjoyment of healthy foods. Excessive amounts, however, are not supportive to health and can lead to obesity and/or dental caries.  The truth is, on average, we are simply consuming too much! 


The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a statement recommending that free sugars be limited to less than 10% of daily energy intake and that a further reduction of less than 5% of daily energy would result in greater health benefits. Free sugars” are defined as sugars added to foods by manufacturers whereas ‘intrinsic sugars are naturally present in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. The reduced sugar intake refers solely to free sugars with no reduction recommended in fruit and vegetable intake.


What does this equate to? So, if 1gram of sugar equates to 4.2 calories or 17 kilojoules, on an 8700kJ diet (considered the average adult energy intake) this is 55grams of sugar or 13 teaspoons. Less than 5% would equate to 25grams or 6 teaspoons. Sounds like quite a bit doesnt it? But consider the hidden sugars in many foods and its not difficult for the average person following the average western diet to tip over the edge. Lets look at how much sugar is in the foods we commonly eat.

Food and drinks

Teaspoons of sugar

1 can (375 mls) soft drink

10 teaspoons sugar

250 ml glass cordial

6 teaspoons sugar

375 ml sports drink

7 teaspoons sugar

50g rocky road

6 teaspoons sugar

1 chocolate bar (50 g)

7 teaspoons sugar

1 lollipop (16 g)

4 teaspoons sugar

3 boiled sweets

3 teaspoons sugar

1 danish pastry

4 teaspoons sugar

2 chocolate biscuits

3 teaspoons sugar

How do we cut down on sugar when traveling?

You’ve worked hard, saved your hard-earned cash and your adrenaline is pumping with thoughts of your upcoming endeavours and adventures. You feel free, released from the increasingly mundane routine of life and the Monday to Friday regular meat and 3 veg meals. You are ready to take risks, wanting to make the most of your limited holiday time. All thoughts of any weight loss, healthy eating or detox diets are suspended. You’re here for a good time, not a long time. Your new daily routime includes buffet breakfasts with muffins and chocolate croissants, gelato for morning or afternoon tea, a sampling of local sweets at the town market and nightly cocktails. 


I’m not the fun police, my motto is “don’t die wondering”. What I mean is, if there’s a local treat you’ve never tasted, a cake, an ice cream flavor, a candy; try it!  It’s all about moderation. You want to enjoy your experience but at the same time avoid having loads of excess weight to deal with upon your return to reality. This can happen since many sugar-laden treats are also high in fat, commonly the least desirable; saturated fat. So the general aim should be to control portion size and pace yourself. Here are some suggestions:  On day one of the breakfast buffet, if you’re a sweet tooth, slice a slither of the cakes you’d like to try instead of loading your plate with full size slices. Or limit yourself to one small ‘treat’ per morning. Save your gelato or granita for mid to late afternoon and avoid sweets at lunch time. Limit yourself to one cocktail pre-dinner and opt for fruit for dessert. 


Italians and the French do this very well and these countries have relatively low obesity rates despite being immersed in a world of wonderful sugary  delights. They often have a sweet breakfast – milky, sweetened  cappucino with a jam filled croissant, but they rarely have desserts other than fruit for dinner. They often enjoy a late afternoon gelato or petit four while enjoying an afternoon walk. So when in Rome, adopt this approach, do something active each day and you won’t be behind the eight ball when you return home. Also, try to live by the rule that if you’re going to eat it, it must be the best – home made, fresh, something local. Don’t waste time and kilojoules on junk. If you start eating it and it doesn’t taste great – stop!

The last piece of advice: having led many gourmet food and hiking tours, many of my clients have either held back on trying new foods (longingly watching everyone else enjoy) or voiced their guilt, if not distress, after eating such treats. All I can say is, have no regrets, don’t feel guilty and most of all “Don’t die wondering!”. Simply commit to regular physical activity (walk daily, stand more, move more) or perhaps drop your sweet treat the next day. Remember, no food is ‘bad’ for you. It’s simply a matter of moderation and balance. You’re on holiday; things are not ‘usual’. Seize the day and enjoy!


(Source for table:; calorie king