THERE is nothing sweet about Ireland’s sugar statistics. We are the fourth highest consumer of sugar in the world, according to Euromonitor research. Yes, the world, coming in behind the US, Germany and the Netherlands. “It’s shocking,” says Dr Eva Orsmond, who says she sees the effects of excessive sugar consumption daily at her clinics in Dublin, Kilkenny, and Galway.
“The problem is that most people don’t realise the amount of ‘free’ or added sugar that is lurking in food, even savoury food,” she adds.
In Sugar Crash, a one-off documentary that airs on RTÉ One, DrEva reveals what our love affair with sugar is costing us in hospital admissions, dental health, long-term illnesses and premature death.
The figures are stark. The average Irish person consumes a whopping 24 teaspoons daily. To put that in context, last year the World Health Organisation revised its guidelines to recommend that adults get no more than 10 per cent of their daily calories from ‘free’ sugars or those added by manufacturers.
Counting in teaspoons, that means adults should limit themselves to 10 teaspoons a day — or six to get health benefits.
“It’s easy to identify some sugars, such as fizzy drinks and the biggest offenders, breakfast cereals,” says Dr Eva. “But people mightn’t realise that a single glass of [some brands of] orange juice might be twice the daily recommended intake for a child.”
She says she was shocked to find that sugar was hiding in all kinds of unexpected foods, such as crackers and bread.
“I found a lot of things hard to swallow, even as a health professional” she tells Feelgood. “For instance, I thought my sons (aged 18 and 19) would not be harmed by a little sugar as they will burn it off, but that is wrong. A high intake of sugar is still a risk factor for disease.”
She says looking at the sugar content on labels was also a salutary lesson. In the documentary, she charts the progress of a Kilkenny family who were stunned to find out how much sugar was in their ‘normal’ healthy diet.
For instance, an average bowl of muesli with a pot of flavoured yoghurt at breakfast sounds like a healthy option but, depending on the brand, that single meal could constitute your entire daily intake of sugar.
Sugar may not always be visible, but its effects are all around us in stark relief. Between 1997 and 2007, obesity levels rose here by a staggering 67 per cent and with them, our love of sugar.
Who can say why sugar consumption rates rose so sharply. Part of it might be explained by the increased disposable income of the Celtic Tiger years which we spent on processed and pre-prepared food, Dr Eva speculates.
The ‘low fat’ fad is partly to blame too, she believes. Manufacturers took the fat out of food, but replaced it with sugar, which has no nutritional value and doesn’t fill you up. “In fact,” Dr Eva says, “foods with high sugar make you want more of them”.
And so the cycle goes on, leading to obesity, high cholesterol, an increased risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and growing dental problems.
The number of teeth extractions among children is also on the rise due to excessive sugar intake.
“No matter how much you brush your teeth, it will not be enough to compensate for the excessive sugar intake,”she says.
One of the most chilling findings is that part of the problem is hidden. Food labels don’t distinguish between added sugars and those that occur naturally. Though, if a product is high in sugar — added or not — it is probably best avoided, Dr Eva says.
And although fruit is not counted as a ‘free’ sugar, it is a good idea to monitor your intake of that too, she adds.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Adopting a healthy diet can very quickly undo much of the damage done by excessive sugar.
“We all need to go back to basics,” says Dr Eva, advocating a return to home-cooking with fresh ingredients. After that, she says, the solution is “education, education, education”.
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