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Sweet success – why is sugar so bad for us and how to cut down

First things first – the key to understanding our tendencies towards sweet and sugary treats is by first gaining a basic understanding of human evolution. It might sound ridiculous to some but, according to evolutionary biologists, we inherited our sugar cravings from our ancestors.

Sugar – where would we be without it?

Blueberries Fruit

Sugar-rich fruit would have been a key component of the diet of our earliest ancestors, at least during the warmer months, and we are said to have evolved to retain a preference for ripe fruit as this contained higher levels of sugar which therefore provided more energy. There are also evolutionary reasons behind the body’s tendency to store sugar as fat too – when we consume sugar, the body breaks this down into glucose and fructose, and the latter is said to activate the fat-storing process. The ability to store up energy in the form of body fat increased the chances of survival during times when food was scarce and is therefore said to have been a crucial factor in the process of human evolution.

Love chocolate? It really can be an addiction!

But there’s another reason why many of us battle with sugar cravings on a daily basis and this can be boiled down to simple chemistry – sugar is known to trigger the release of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine. After consuming sugar, be it in the form of chocolate, cake or a sugary cup of coffee – the neurotransmitter dopamine is released into the mesolimbic pathway within the brain – also known as the reward pathway. This pathway is said to be the most significant neural pathway, responsible for our very survival as a species. Deemed a ‘natural’ reward, other basic activities such as eating, having sex and caring for our family members also trigger this reward response – which in turn ensures that these behaviours - essential to survival - are repeated ad infinitum.

Donuts Sugar

The reward pathway is also said to be the area of the brain in which changes occur in relation to the cycle of addiction – in all its forms, whether it be sugar, tobacco, caffeine, alcohol or drugs and therein lies the catch – food, and in particular - sugar-laden and carb-heavy foods, such as doughnuts – really CAN be addictive, as increasing evidence has shown. It tastes good, we feel good when we’re eating it, and we get an energy kick from it so naturally, we want to do it over and over again. But as our propensity toward sugar increases, so do our waistlines and risk factors for numerous obesity-related health problems.

But why now?

We’re all familiar with the statistics – UK obesity rates have been increasing while simultaneously more of us seem to be aware of and attuned to the dangers of too much sugar on the diet than we ever have been. So where are we going wrong? What about our national diet has changed so drastically compared to, say, 25 years ago?

Lifestyle changes

There are numerous theories as to why we are seeing rising rates of obesity, but many experts agree that it is likely to be a combination of factors combined which are resulting in obesity, as opposed to one or two main causes.

Some of the contributory factors include a decline in manual professions coupled with an increase in office-based employment, an upward trend of equally sedentary leisure activities, such as gaming and tablet/smartphone usage, as well as changes to the national diet. Many of us are always ‘busy’, working or driving here there and everywhere on a perpetual hamster wheel of mentally draining activities, but how much of this activity is truly working our physical bodies, muscles and tissues in the way - through tens of thousands of years of evolution - our bodies have become accustomed to operate?

Hidden sugars – do we really need them?

Sugar in Tea

While almost all of us are aware of the risks associated with added sugar – such as that added to tea and coffee or sprinkled over cereal or fruit, how much do we really know about hidden or free sugars that are lurking in those fruit flavoured squashes, in low-fat but high in sugar yoghurts or even in some deceptively savoury pastries and rolls from the bakery?

What are free sugars?

Free sugars are any form of sugar – with the exception of milk sugar or lactose – that has been added to foods or drinks including those naturally found in foods including fruit and honey. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommends that such sugars should account for a maximum of 5% of our daily energy intake – or 30g per day for adults. Children aged between 4 and 6 should consume 19g per day or less and children aged between 7 and 11 should have a maximum of 24g, but experts point out that these targets can prove difficult to achieve given that free sugars are not currently listed on food labels.

How can I find out if a food is high in sugar?


A good rule to remember is, if sugar is among the first few ingredients listed, the overall product will contain very high levels of sugar. Other ingredients to look out for besides the obvious ‘sugar’ include sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose, invert sugar and molasses.

The traffic light food labelling system can also be a useful way to identify high-sugar foods and drinks, with a red traffic light to signify high sugar. Some food manufacturers are now reformulating some of their products and promoting them as reduced sugar – so try to make the switch from your usual products to the reduced sugar version wherever possible.

Sugar and obesity

Weighing Scales

One of the primary consequences of a high-sugar diet is obesity – a problem which continues to expand across much of the developed world, with a huge 59% of the EU population now classed as clinically obese. In the UK, 25% of adults are said to be obese – with a BMI of 30 or above. Dealing with the consequences of obesity, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and cancer costs the NHS £5.1 billion a year and type 2 diabetes, a large proportion of which is said to be a consequence of obesity costs the NHS £8.8billion per year – 10% of the entire NHS budget.

But perhaps of most concern of all, our children are suffering and are being set up for a lifetime of ill health. According to the most recent data, British children of primary school age are the most obese in Europe, with a third classed as overweight or obese, and one in five five-year-olds are also overweight – figures predicted to rise further to half of all school-age children by 2020.

If your child is very overweight, visit NHS Choices to find out what you can do to help them lose weight in a healthy way.

Sugar and tooth decay in children

According to the British Dental Association (BDA), tooth decay is the number one cause for hospital admissions for tooth extractions in young children, citing recent data that reveals a 10% increase admissions over the past four years.

Is sugar intake really to blame?

According to the NHS, children in the UK are consuming three times the sugar than they should be, which tragically means their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular problems and even some cancers, is increased. The NHS says that around 30% of this extra sugar is consumed in the form of fizzy drinks, squashes, energy drinks and fruit juices.

The BDA has an informative video on the sugar content of soft drinks.

How much sugar should we be consuming?

Sugar Cubes

As mentioned above, the SACN issued new guidance last year that recommends no more than 5% of our daily energy be from sugar. This is equivalent to the following amounts per day:

  • 19g of sugar for children aged 4 to 6
  • 24g of sugar for children aged 7 to 11
  • 30g of sugar for everyone aged 11 and over, including adults.

For the NHS guidelines on sugar, visit NHS Choices.

How can I cut down on sugar?

The NHS has also produced a range of resources to help people reduce their sugar intake and find out more facts about sugar via the NHS Healthier Families part of their website. You can discover why too much sugar is detrimental to health as well as tips on cutting back, recipes and the free to download NHS Food Scanner app.

You can also follow our three quick tips to reduce your sugar intake below for some more ideas.

You may find the first few days without your usual sugar hit difficult but persevere and you should find your energy levels stabilise as you grow accustomed to coping without the peaks and troughs of sugar cravings and the inevitable post-sugar energy crash. And your overall health will improve, while you will be actively reducing your risk of developing serious health problems. So, what are you waiting for?

TIP 1: Try making your own fruit infused water

Strawberry Water

Have a go at slicing up some strawberries and fresh mint or maybe some tangy lemons and limes, or any other fruit of your choosing, and mix with a jug of chilled mineral water for an all-natural low-calorie treat for your taste buds. It’s a visual treat too! If you still miss the fizzy hit, try using sparkling water instead of still.

Depending on the fruit used, you should be able to store it in the fridge for up to 12 hours but it’s probably best served immediately.

You could try mixing the following together in a large glass jug:

Mineral water, chilled

Ice cubes

1 lemon, sliced

1 lime, sliced

Some fresh mint leaves, washed and torn to release the flavour.

Or alternatively, try:

Drinking Water With Fruit

Sparkling mineral water, chilled

Ice cubes

A handful of fresh strawberries washed and quartered

Some fresh mint leaves, washed and torn to release the flavour.

TIP 2: Ditch the sugary drinks and make the switch to water

Fruit Juices

Stop buying fizzy drinks and sugar-laden squashes – if you don’t buy them, you will stop relying on the additional sugar kick each time you feel thirsty. It might take effort, commitment and a hefty dose of willpower to begin with, but persevere and you will soon find that the benefits of improved hydration (clearer thinking, improved concentration) far outweigh any short-term energy boost provided by the sugar hit. Always carry a water bottle with you wherever you go to reduce the chances of buckling to temptation when out and about.

If you really feel like you’re missing out, you could try around 150ml of freshly-squeezed fruit juice of your choice topped up with some icy-cold calorie-free sparkling water, available from most supermarkets. Bear in mind though that even natural fruit juices will be crammed with sugars, albeit natural ones, and it’s also highly acidic – which can spell double trouble for your dental health!

The occasional sugary drink when you are grabbing a sandwich while out and about shouldn’t be a problem – as long as you don’t return to bad habits on a daily basis – so don’t beat yourself up if you cave into cola once in a while, the key really is moderation.

TIP 3: The oven gloves are off!

Home Baking

One way of getting around the high-sugar nature of your favourite baked goodies is to make your own. Part of the fun is experimenting with different ingredients including fruit and spices until you perfect a recipe that you love, so make it fun. If you have children, get them involved in the inventing process – they’ll be more likely to chow down on whatever you come up with and less likely to complain that the cupboard no longer contains the usual chocolate biscuits and cake bars. Remember, the below recipes do not contain the usual quantities of sugar, so you will need to replace this with a portion of fruit and a dash of honey to achieve a naturally sweet taste.

This content is subject to our Disclaimer.

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