Angela Dowden is an award winning registered nutritionist and freelance health journalist with 20 years post degree expertise. She writes prolifically on diet and nutrition for several national newspapers and magazines including Woman’s Own, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Health and Fitness magazine. She believes healthy should be enjoyable, not a chore, and is a whizz at creating nutritious and tasty diet plans.
- Is sugar as bad as is made out and how much is too much?
- If you’re very active and do regular exercise, some sugar can be useful to fuel muscles and provide energy. But most people, especially children, consume too much and this excess sugar contributes to obesity and diabetes. There are two types of sugar in food – ‘intrinsic’ or natural sugars (found in milk, whole fruits and vegetables) and the “free” or added type used to sweeten processed foods or added to tea, on cereal or in baking. “Free” sugar also includes the sugar in fruit juices, honeys and syrups and is the type we need to cut down on. Official UK health advice, and information from the World Health Organisation states that we should consume no more than 5 per cent of calories from free sugar – that’s approximately 30g a day or 7 level teaspoons for the average adult. Children should have less – no more than 19g a day (5 teaspoons) for children aged 4-6 years old, and no more than 24g (six teaspoons) for children aged 7-10 years old.
A daily consumption of just two chocolate digestives and 3 cups of tea with one teaspoon of sugar in each takes you to the 30g limit.
- Will having a lot of sweeteners make a sugar craving worse?
- No, there’s no evidence for this. It’s sometimes argued that having sweeteners too often isn’t a good idea, because it means we don’t re-educate our taste buds to want less sweet foods, but this is just a theory and most experts agree it’s fine to enjoy sweetness from sweeteners, and this is healthier than having excess sugar. Some media headlines have also suggested that the use of artificial sweeteners may have a stimulating effect on appetite, but according to the NHS there is little evidence from longer-term studies to show that sweeteners lead to increased energy intake or contribute to the risk of obesity.
- Are some sweeteners better for dieters than others?
- Yes, some sweeteners don’t contribute any calories to the diet, but others do. The ones that are low or calorie free include aspartame, acesulfame K, and sucralose. However, the so called sugar alcohols – like sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol – have around 40 – 60 per cent of the calorie content of sugar so aren’t as waistline-friendly.
- Are some sweeteners safer than others?
- All the major sweeteners with E numbers have been approved by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and other regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration in America and the Food Safety Commission in Japan. As part of the evaluation process, EFSA sets an acceptable daily intake (ADI), which is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime. You don’t need to worry about which sweeteners you consume or how many times during the day you consume them as this ADI is difficult to reach and even if you did exceed it, you are still a long way below a toxic level. As an example, to exceed the ADI of Canderel Red a 60kg person would need to consume more than 120 teaspoons Granular or more than 95 tablets everyday throughout their life.
Here’s a list of some of the safest and most widely used sweeteners (for more detail on safety see here) Aspartame: Up to 200 times sweeter than sugar, aspartame is made from two amino acids (protein building blocks) and is used all over the world as a sugar substitute in thousands of foods and drinks, including cereals, sugar-free chewing gum, low-calorie (diet) soft drinks and table-top sweeteners. It is quickly and completely broken by the body into phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol. These are common by-products of the digestion of other foods, so the body handles them in just the same way.
Sucralose: Derived from sugar but up to 650 times sweeter, sucralose is valued for having no bitter aftertaste and can be found in lots of lower-calorie foods and table top sweeteners. Between 8% and 20% enters the blood and is then excreted via urine. Acesulfame K: Up to 200 times sweeter than sugar and as sweet as aspartame, acesulfame k (acesulfame potassium) is often blended with sucralose and aspartame. Acesulfame K is not broken down when digested, nor is it stored in the body. After being consumed, it is quickly absorbed and then rapidly excreted, unchanged. Stevia (steviol glycosides): This plant extract – which is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and calorie-free – has been used as a sweetener for many years in Asia and South America. When consumed, steviol glycosides are broken down into steviol, which is absorbed by the body. The body does not store steviol glycosides and they are rapidly eliminated in faeces and urine.
- What are the benefits of using sweetener over sugar?
- Anything that helps us reduce the amount of sugar in our diet is a good idea – most of us eat too much and sugary foods and drinks can cause tooth decay, especially if you have them between meals. Many foods that contain added sugars also contain lots of calories and often have few other nutrients. Using sweeteners in place of sugar allows you to enjoy a sweet treat without the same calorie load and depending on the other ingredients in the food, can make a much better option for diabetics (because your blood sugar levels rise less), as well as being better for your oral health.
- What about coconut sugar, agave and honey - are they healthier sugar sources?
- No, it’s important not to be taken in by sugars like these that are made to sound healthier because they come from a “natural” source or are “unrefined”. In fact, all sugars or syrups, regardless of their source or status (whether they are organic for example) contain free sugars of the type that we are recommended to eat less of. Some sugar sources, like coconut sugar and molasses claim to be a source of minerals, but usually the amounts they provide are only trace and it’s much healthier to get these minerals from healthier foods such as whole grains, dairy, fish and chicken etc.
- What’s the best way to prevent diabetes?
- There’s no magic formula – to reduce your chance of developing type 2 diabetes you need to keep your weight under control by watching portion sizes and moving more (aim for 10,000 steps every day). Try to keep your blood sugar and cholesterol controlled by reducing your intake of saturated fats (the unsaturated type in vegetable and olive oils, nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish are fine) and avoiding lots of sugar and refined carbs. Eating three modest meals with lots of fruit and veg, some protein and whole grains is the best formula. Find some good general tips here too. If you already have type 2 diabetes, you can help to stay healthier with a healthy balanced diet. Choose five portions of fruit and veg each day and have some higher fibre starchy foods (not the refined or sugary type) with plenty of lean protein and a portion or two of dairy daily so that your blood sugar stays relatively stable. Sweeteners are safe and useful as an alternative to sugar for diabetics, allowing the enjoyment of occasional sweet treats, such as puddings, cakes and sweetened drinks.
- Everyone seems to be going vegan - is it healthy?
- Vegan diets are more restrictive than vegetarian ones – vegans don’t just avoid meat and fish, but also exclude dairy and eggs. While plant food based diets are higher in fibre and better for us in many ways (and also for the planet), being completely vegan makes it much more challenging to get all the nutrients you need. This is because eggs and dairy are a good source of nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin B12. You should therefore think carefully before jumping on the vegan bandwagon – particularly about how you will get enough healthy omega-3 fat, calcium, iron, vitamin D and vitamin B12. Nuts, seeds (like flax), pulses, tofu, whole grains and vitamin D-enriched mushrooms are all foods that will greatly improve your chances of thriving on a vegan diet.
- Is there a diet that targets stomach fat?
- Unfortunately, it’s impossible to effectively target or to alter where your body deposits or loses fat from, which can be genetically determined and is also affected by your age, gender and hormones. That said, you can tone areas with targeted exercises but the muscle won’t emerge until you’ve shed the overlaying fat. Watching the composition of your diet as well as its calorie content may also help – there’s some evidence that people who eat a diet higher in whole grains and get plenty of calcium from dairy may be slimmer round the midriff.
- Should I follow a low carb diet to lose weight?
- Low carb diets can be more effective at helping you lose weight in the short term as you lose water weight immediately and lower carb diets tend to be higher in protein, which is good at triggering a feeling of fullness. But over the longer term there is little difference and in fact cutting out carbs isn’t desirable as they are the body’s go to source for energy. Low carb diets also cut out whole grains, which means you may miss out on fibre. It’s better not to cut out carbs, but to focus on eating the healthier types, like whole grains, pulses, sweet potatoes and potatoes in their skins (and not the refined type like white bread, white rice and sugary foods).
- Is it advisable to eat carbs at the end of the day or at the beginning?
- There are no times of day you should eat or avoid carbohydrates. Even though they’ve been demonised, carbs are the body’s go to source of energy and we should base most meals around them, particularly high fibre, slow releasing versions like whole grains and pulses. There has also been a fashion to not eat carbs after a particular time (5 or 6pm) in the evening, which is touted as a way to lose weight. There may be some sense to this for weight loss as it’s a way to naturally curb calories. However, there’s nothing inherently “fattening” about carbs – they are only a problem if you eat too many or combine them with fattening sauces or oils.
- Is it ok to eat a high fat diet now - I keep reading low fat diets were what made us fat!?
- It’s true that there has been a backlash against low fat, and this seems to have spawned the low carb high fat fad. In fact, dietary recommendations in the UK have never advocated a very low fat diet – we’re meant to get around a third of our energy (calories) from fat and that seems about right. Unfortunately, popular diet culture seems to like having a nutrient to “blame” for obesity and ill health and instead of picking on fat we now seem to be picking on sugar. Neither is helpful and it’s best to think in terms of actual food. Neither too much saturated fat nor sugar is good for us and ultimately to be a healthy weight we need to eat a nutritionally balanced diet and not too many calories.
- Why does healthy eating seem so contradictory – what should I eat for the best?
- It might seem contradictory, but healthy eating advice hasn’t actually changed much in a while. If you aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and veg a day, base meals around unprocessed high fibre carbohydrates (like whole grain pasta, wholemeal bread, brown rice, and skin on potatoes), then add some protein such as chicken, fish, meat eggs or lentils / pulses, you can’t go too far wrong. You’ll also ideally need some dairy or a fortified alternative such as soya milk to make sure you are getting enough calcium, and some healthy fats from foods like nuts, seeds, vegetable an olive oils and a weekly portion of oily fish. As an example, a healthy day’s meals might be: poached eggs and mushrooms on wholemeal toast followed by low fat yogurt and fruit for breakfast, a large bowl of vegetable soup, a whole grain chicken salad sandwich and more fruit for lunch, then a plate of grilled salmon, stir fried veg and whole wheat noodles for dinner. You can read more about the government’s healthy eating guidelines here.
- What’s the best breakfast for weight loss?
- There’s no definitive answer to this but having a mixture of protein and whole grains so that your blood sugar stays steady is probably the best plan. For example, a couple of poached eggs on a slice of wholegrain toast will usually prove more filing than a white bagel with jam. Other good choices include porridge made with milk and whole grain toast with peanut butter. Always include some fruit or veg too – an orange or grilled tomatoes / mushrooms for example.
- Will eating late at night make me fat?
- Eating too many calories overall (and not burning them up through exercise) is what can lead to obesity. However, if you can avoid eating a heavy meal late at night it is probably best. There’s evidence that we process the fats in a high fat meal better when we are active and going to bed on a heavy meal could potentially increase your heart disease risk. However, the research on this is conflicting and has only really been done on rats. The flipside is that many Mediterranean nations eat late at night yet do not have as high rates of obesity or ill health as the UK. The bottom line is that it is what you eat and how much you eat overall that matters most, not when you eat.
- Do fasting diets work?
- For some people they can – the 2 day diet, which sees followers eating 600 calories for just two consecutive days a week has some good backing and has been used successfully by women seeking to lose weight and reduce their breast cancer risk. Other fasting regimens include several “5:2” variations, but ultimately all work for weight loss by reducing calories in total over the week. People who prefer to really curb their eating for two days so they don’t have to worry so much for the other five do respond best to these diets however – ultimately it’s just down to personal preference.
- What about liquid diets – smoothies, juices and protein shakes?
- Juicing was big news for a while, but most experts don’t think living on juices or smoothies is a good idea, especially if the juices are fruit based as these can contain a lot of sugar in a small volume. Processing into juice or a smoothie releases the sugars from the fibrous structure of the fruit and these free sugars are for more likely to damage your teeth and spike your blood sugar than sugars still safely bound within the whole fruit.
Protein shakes are slightly different as protein is known to be a satiating nutrient. But these can still be high in sugar and it’s best to get protein from whole foods or a glass of skimmed milk, which contain a whole raft of nutrients. Protein shakes marketed as slimline meal replacements often aren’t any lower calorie than a nutritious chicken or tuna salad, which has more nutrients and will bulk your stomach out more.
- Can you recommend a good snack to hit the sweet cravings?
- A small handful of dried fruit is a better alternative to biscuits, chocolates or sweets. Juicy fresh fruits like mango, sweet cherries or strawberries might also be enough to divert you away from the unhealthier options and will provide you with fibre, vitamin C and other nutrients. For a lower sugar alternative to cakes and buns, malt loaf can also hit the spot, or for calorie free sweetness, sugar free jelly or a diet drink can fit the bill. A handful of nuts or something protein based – prawns or chicken slices for example - may even be able to circumvent a sugar craving completely and will help you avoid the unhealthy spikes in blood sugar and insulin that a sweet snack, particularly between meals, can cause.
- Is granola a healthy breakfast option?
- It’s not usually the best choice as a typical 45g serving has around 10g, or two-an-a-half teaspoons of sugar and can be high in fat (up to 5g of saturated fat, or a quarter of your daily recommendation in a granola with chocolate chips in for example). You can increasingly find lower sugar granola however, which is much better. But on the whole a bowl of oat porridge is a healthier option.
- Can you recommend an alternative to chocolate?
- It’s hard to find a viable alternative (even things like carob bars have a similar amount of sugar and fat). Rather than cutting out chocolate or trying to find an alternative, a better option is to choose small bars of high quality very dark chocolate, which has lots of intense cocoa flavour and to savour just a couple of squares. If this isn’t going to work for you, another way to get a chocolate hit without the calories is to enjoy a low calorie hot chocolate drink. A chocolate coated rice thin is another lower calorie option.
- How often should I be eating?
- Surprisingly there aren’t any hard or fast rules on this, but for most people focusing on three balanced meals spread over the day is the best advice as this is a plan that will help keep hunger curbed, regulate your blood sugar levels and give you the nutrients you need. Depending on the size of the meal and your activity level you may also want to plan in a couple of nutritious snacks. Other people prefer a grazing type plan, or just to eat two larger meals a day, and there’s some emerging evidence that it may be better for us to limit our eating to no more than a 12-hour period in every 24 hours (fasting for at least 12 hours overnight). But ultimately, for weight management, what matters most is that you balance the energy you consume with the energy you use.
- How often should I be eating?
- This will depend on the individual but on average, Public Health England suggests that breakfast should be around 400 calories, lunch around 600 calories and dinner also around 600 calories. This then allows up to 400 calories for snacks and drinks. A 600 calorie meal can be quite big or small depending on it’s make up – that’s why, to feel full, it’s a good idea to fill half your plate with fruit and veg, around a quarter with good quality carbs (such as whole grains) and the other quarter with a source of lean protein (chicken, fish, beans or eggs)
- I hate plain water; what low calorie drinks can I have?
- Jazzing up water with a squeeze of lemon / lime or with a few slices of strawberries can make it more appealing – or you may find a sparkling version appeals more. But water doesn’t need to be your only way to hydrate - tea and coffee can be low calorie too, if you use a dash of skimmed milk, and a sweetener if you like it sweet. Diet drinks are an option too – good when you fancy a soft drink but don’t want the calories. Remember diet drinks can contain acids that aren’t good for your teeth though.