Sugar & Health

Sugar and a healthy diet

    • Australia and New Zealand both have government based recommendations to encourage healthy eating
    • Poor nutrition is associated with ill-health
    • Sugar, as part of otherwise nutritious foods, such as low-fat yoghurt and some breakfast cereals can be included as part of the five food groups
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Across all life stages it is important to eat well and keep active. Poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle are closely associated with ill-health.

In both Australia and New Zealand, programs have been developed to promote and encourage good health and wellbeing through appropriate diet and lifestyle choices. These come in the form of dietary recommendations or guidelines. Dietary recommendations are shown to be effective in guiding people around the types of foods they should consume and the foods they should avoid. Typically, recommendations are aimed at otherwise healthy people and are broad statements, reflecting the varying individual requirements of people and the variety of eating patterns which can still meet nutritional needs.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines

Guideline 1
To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs.

Children and adolescents should eat sufficient nutritious foods to grow and develop normally. They should be physically active every day and their growth should be checked regularly.

Older people should eat nutritious foods and keep physically active to help maintain muscle strength and a healthy weight.

Guideline 2
Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five groups every day:

  • Plenty of vegetables, including different types and colours, and legumes/beans
  • Fruit
  • Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat (reduced fat milks are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years)

And drink plenty of water.

Guideline 3
Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol

  • Limit intake of foods high in saturated fat such as many biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks
    • Replace high fat foods which contain predominantly saturated fats such as butter, cream, cooking margarine, coconut and palm oil with foods which contain predominantly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as oils, spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado
    • Low fat diets are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years
  • Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added salt
  • Read labels to choose lower sodium options among similar foods
    • Do not add salt to foods in cooking or at the table
  • Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars such as confectionary, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, limit intake. For women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is the safest option

Guideline 4
Encourage, support and promote breastfeeding

Guideline 5
Care for your food; prepare and store it safely

New Zealand Eating and Activity Guidelines (eating statements)

  • Enjoy a variety of nutritious foods every day including:
    • plenty of vegetables and fruit
    • grain foods, mostly whole grain and those naturally high in fibre
    • some milk and milk products, mostly low and reduced fat
    • some legumes* nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry (eg, chicken)
    • and/or red meat with the fat removed.

* Legumes include lentils, split peas, chickpeas and cooked dried beans (eg, kidney beans, baked beans).

  • Choose and/or prepare foods and drinks:
    • with unsaturated fats (canola, olive, rice bran or vegetable oil, or margarine)
    • instead of saturated fats (butter, cream, lard, dripping, coconut oil)
    • that are low in salt (sodium); if using salt, choose iodised salt
    • with little or no added sugar
    • that are mostly 'whole' and less processed.
  • Make plain water your first choice over other drinks.

Where does sugar fit?

To reflect how we eat, guidelines focus on food groups rather than single nutrients. Each food group is characterised by the main macro and micronutrients that it contributes to the diet. 

The guidelines suggest to limit the consumption of, or, not add sugar to foods. Foods high in total energy, added sugar, salt and fat with little other nutrition are often classed as 'discretionary foods' or 'extras' foods. These are treats such as chocolate, sweets, hamburgers or ice-cream. They are not necessarily required to meet nutritional needs, but can add enjoyment to eating when consumed responsibly. 

When sugar is consumed with otherwise nutritious foods, such as flavoured yoghurts or some breakfast cereals then these items contribute to a persons core food intake. This reflects the contribution to nutrition and mineral intake the overall food has. It also highlights the ability to consume sugar in moderation without any adverse health effects.

Overall, it is about whole food choices and patterns of eating. If a diet is made of nutrient poor discretionary, or extra, foods than it is likely that nutritional requirements are not being met. However, if a diet which still contains a moderate amount of sugar, is based around the core foods, then it is more than likely that all nutritional needs are being fulfilled.

NEXT: Sugar and obesity

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