Sugar does not directly cause Type 1 diabetes. The question of whether sugar directly causes Type 2 diabetes is a bit complicated. So here we explain what we mean by sugar, the impact sugar can have on your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and whether you can eat sugar when you have diabetes.
We all know the stereotype – if you’ve got diabetes, you must have eaten too much sugar. But with this sweet ingredient found in so much of our food – what’s the truth about sugar and how does it affect diabetes?
What is sugar?
Sugar is found naturally in fruit, vegetables and dairy foods. It’s also added to food and drink by food manufacturers, or by ourselves at home. The debate about sugar and health is mainly around the ‘added sugars’. This includes:
- table sugar that we add to our hot drinks or breakfast cereal
- caster sugar, used in baking
- sugars hidden in sauces, ready meals, cakes and drinks.
Does sugar cause diabetes?
There are two main types of diabetes – Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
In Type 1 diabetes, the insulin producing cells in your pancreas are destroyed by your immune system. No amount of sugar in your diet – or anything in your lifestyle – has caused or can cause you to get Type 1 diabetes.
With Type 2 diabetes, though we know sugar doesn’t directly cause Type 2 diabetes, you are more likely to get it if you are overweight. You gain weight when you take in more calories than your body needs, and sugary foods and drinks contain a lot of calories.
And it's important to add that fatty foods and drinks are playing a part in our nation's expanding waistline.
So you can see if too much sugar is making you put on weight, then you are increasing your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes. But Type 2 diabetes is complex, and sugar is unlikely to be the only reason the condition develops.
If I have diabetes, can I eat sugar?
Having diabetes doesn’t mean you have to cut sugar out of your diet completely. We all enjoy eating sugary foods occasionally, and there’s no problem including them as a treat in a healthy, balanced diet. And, for some people with diabetes, sugary drinks or glucose tablets are essential to treat a hypo, when your blood glucose levels get too low.
However, we are eating too much sugar – far too much – and harming our health as a result. Being overweight can make it difficult to control your diabetes and increase your risk of getting serious health problems such as heart disease and stroke in the future. Too much sugar is bad for your teeth too.
Should I stop eating sugar altogether?
You don’t have to cut out sugar out of your diet completely. Sugar is found naturally in fruit, vegetables and dairy foods, and most of us in the UK are not getting the recommended five fruit and veg a day so it’s important we don’t cut these out as they are so good for you.
It’s the added sugar that we need to cut down on. And it’s not just the obviously sweet things like biscuits and chocolate. It’s the hidden sugar lurking in many foods foods such as baked beans, pasta sauces, tomato ketchup, low fat yogurts and ready meals.
Some drinks are packed with sugar too. And go easy on fruit juice which contains a lot of sugar and calories. Keep to just one small glass – 150 ml – a day.
How can I tell from a label if there is added sugar?
Food labels are the best way to work out how much sugar is in what you're eating. The amount of added sugar in a food or drink is not always given. The figures for sugar are for total sugar and don’t tell you how much of the sugar comes from natural sugars, such as fruit sugar and how much comes from added sugar. Some foods and drink don’t have the word ‘sugar’ in the ingredients list but still have sugar added. Honey, sucrose, glucose, glucose syrup, dextrose, fructose, hydrolysed starch, corn and maize syrup are all added sugars. If you see any of these words on the ingredients list, you know sugar has been added.
How much sugar should I be eating?
We all should be cutting our sugar intake by half to around 25g a day – which works out at just five teaspoons a day. Given that a tablespoon of ketchup contains around one teaspoon of sugar, a chocolate biscuit has up to two, and a small serving of baked beans almost three – you can see how quickly the teaspoons tot up.
How can I reduce my sugar intake?
Simple changes can dramatically reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet.
- Instead of your usual chocolate bars, sweets, cakes and biscuits, make fruit your snack of choice.
- For those times when only chocolate will do, stick to a few squares of dark chocolate.
- Try natural yogurt mixed in with chopped fruit or a small handful of nuts instead of your usual sugary fix.
- Experiment with reducing the sugar you use in recipes – most recipes will work just as well.
- Try artificial sweetener in place of sugar.
- Choose diet fizzy drinks and no added sugar squashes instead of sugary versions. Sugary drinks are best used as a treatment for hypos.
- Try to cook from scratch where possible – that way you can be sure of what's in your food. Check out our tasty, easy-to-follow and simple recipes.
- Keep an eye on reduced-fat foods – many actually contain more sugar as food manufactures add sugar to compensate for the altered taste and texture caused by the fat being removed. Look at the whole food label to be sure.
- To see whether a product is high in added sugar look at the ingredients list, which always starts with the biggest ingredient first.