My friend, recently: “How much sugar is the maximum I can have a day?”
Me: “Around 7 teaspoons or 30 grams of free sugars”.
Friend: “Oh good, I can eat around 50 bags of these crisps then…”
For me this is often a fairly typical question and response when it comes to diet and single nutrients. Yes, sugar is not great, we should be eating less. The same goes for salt, and fat and calories for most of us. But all the media attention on individual nutrients sometimes leaves the public, like my friend above, missing the bigger picture.
Of course sugar is not great for our teeth and, if we eat too much of it, we’re likely to put on weight. The same goes for eating too many calories from fat and salt which has been linked to poor cardiovascular health.
But I believe there is a bigger, more overall problem with our food.
Humans are born with preferences for sweet foods and fatty foods – it’s an evolutionary thing. Fatty foods = high calories, which in turn = positive energy storage. This, of course, is beneficial if you’re living in an environment where food/calories are scarce. We’re not by the way.
With regard to sugar, sweet foods (rather than bitter foods) are thought to be readily enjoyed from birth, as they are less likely to be poisonous. Additionally in nature, sweetness also tends to come along with plenty of fibre – so naturally sweet foods are fairly hard to over consume in a natural environment. It’s very easy to eat 30g of sugar (the maximum amount of ‘free’ sugars recommended by the UK Government and also the amount in a standard Mars bar) from a chocolate bar or can of fizzy drink and not feel too full, but it’s less easy to consume the same amount from fruits. Additionally, fruit comes along with fibre, vitamin C, antioxidants as well as some minerals, whereas the chocolate is empty of that goodness.
The trouble with foods today?
The tastes and flavours we’ve become accustomed to today, aren’t really real. The food industry has found a way to create the perfect combination of sugar and fat in a texture that is also incredibly appealing. This combination for many, is virtually impossible to resist. Biscuits, cakes, puddings – these foods are unnaturally sweet and often unnaturally energy dense – so that consuming these means that ‘natural’ sweetness just doesn’t cut it for many of us anymore.
Couple that with the fact that by the time most of our children get to 5 years of age, they’ve already tried these ‘unnaturally’ palatable foods, and you can see how a life-long problem may be created.
As soon as a 5 year old tastes their first glass of sweet liquid for example, plain, non-sweet water is less likely to tingle the taste buds in quite the same way. Once a child gets used to the delicious, creamy, sweet and incredibly palatable taste of chocolate buttons, why would we expect them to then enjoy the taste of broccoli, spinach or even carrots in the same way.
The point is that a lot of the foods that most of us have on a daily basis are made to be super palatable – they are made to encourage you to want more and they are unfortunately made to taste so good that ‘real’ food just really isn’t that special.
So when clients or friends of mine say to me “but healthy food just doesn’t taste as good” I completely agree, and that’s often the whole point of these manufactured foods! Nature has created wonderful, delicious food which ticks all the boxes for nutrients, fibre, energy etc., but of course nature can’t compete with our ever growing technologies. And the worst part is, that the more of these unnaturally delicious foods we have, the less of a taste we’re likely to have for those foods that nature created.
This is why the food we give to children is so important. Of course a bag of crisps or a chocolate here and there won’t be a problem. But if those foods become regular occurrences from an early age, children’s taste preferences are likely to change. Children may then become more fussy and may start disliking water and other foods that they perceive to be ‘plain’. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard children say water is ‘disgusting’ – which, when you think about it, is a little strange, since water has practically no taste. It’s simply because children get used to sweet fluids and then anything less just doesn’t spark their taste buds’ interests.
Those same foods are often used as comforters, bribes and rewards for children, giving them even more prestige and making them even more desirable to our uninformed little ones.
Another problem, is that whilst most of us know the kinds of foods to avoid, these particular foods also seem to be the most unavoidable. So when we visit a petrol station, a gym, a hospital or even Topshop (!!), we constantly have these ridiculously palatable foods pushed down our throats and, with the best will in the world, when you’re tired, stressed, overworked or just in the need of a pick me up, it can feel almost impossible to say no.
So what’s the solution? Give these a go for starters…
- Retrain your taste buds – it really does work. Gradually cutting down (rather than total avoidance/restriction) of these sugars, salty and fatty foods can really help to re-train your taste buds to get used to less. For example reducing sugar in your tea by a tiny amount each week can see you cutting sugar from your tea all together in a matter of months, without really noticing it. I’ve seen it work with plenty of clients.
- Practise ‘Mindful Eating’ – when you’re eating, think about the foods you’re putting into your mouth. Take a few seconds before swallowing to note the tastes, flavours and textures – especially with ‘nature’s’ foods.
- Enjoy new foods – try experiencing some exotic or new foods that you’ve never tasted before. Even if you don’t like them, it’s a great idea to help expand your palate.
- Buy quality, in-season foods – these are often fresher, more flavourful and more nutrient dense. Use this website to check for in-season fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Reduce your ‘junk’ intake – try cutting down on the number of times each day or each week that you have these foods. Remember, total avoidance is likely to leave you craving more.
- Find healthy foods you really like and include them more often – for me I love avocados, vine ripened cherry tomatoes and figs. Oh and I love the smell of freshly torn basil.
- Encourage your little ones to eat well early on – you don’t need to completely avoid giving them sugar and salt as they get older, but do keep it to a minimum and allow a huge variety of foods such as fruits and vegetables, so they get used to different tastes, flavours and textures.