The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) published their report on Carbohydrate and Health last week (July 2015). It is a 384 page document all about carbohydrates…. but how do we interpret it and what does it mean for us?

SACN is an expert advisory board for the UK government who were tasked with looking at the latest evidence for the links between the consumption of carbohydrates, sugar, starch and fibre in relation to health (i.e. heart disease, type 2 diabetes, bowel health and tooth decay). What are their recommendations?

1) The amount of carbohydrate in our diet should be about 50% of our energy intake.

This advice has not changed. If your meals consist of starchy carbohydrate foods (e.g. bread / pasta / rice / potatoes), protein (e.g. meat / fish / beans / lentils) and vegetables or salad then you are probably managing about 50% energy from carbs. They recommend this amount of carbohydrate is appropriate to maintain a healthy weight. So low carb diets such as Atkins or Dukan diets that have a lower percentage of energy as carbohydrate are not being recommended for the general healthy population. When choosing these starchy foods with your meals, ensure you are eating a correct portion size (check the packet if you are unsure) as eating larger amounts can cause weight gain. The type of starchy carbohydrate you choose is linked to the next point…

2) Dietary fibre should be increased in our diet to 30g per day.

This is based on evidence that dietary fibre (especially cereal fibre and whole grain) is associated with a lower risk of cardio-metabolic disease and colo-rectal disease. The last National Diet and Nutrition Survey reported that we were not even meeting the previous fibre target of 18g a day (new classification it would equate to 23-24g/day) so as a nation we are not very good at eating our fibre! The new recommendation is now 30g per day for adults, so we have a lot to do to increase our fibre intake. We need to be using more wholemeal / whole grain foods and plenty of fruit and vegetables. We will write more about fibre and how to get more fibre into our diets in our next post.

Carbohydrate fibre

3) The average population intake of free sugars should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy intake.

This recommendation has dropped from 10% to only 5% of energy in our diet coming from sugar. Free sugars are now classed as glucose, sucrose (table sugar), fructose, plus sugars naturally present in syrups, honey and unsweetened fruit juice.
Please remember that sugar found in fruit and milk (lactose) is not included in free sugars and does not need to be restricted and we should still be aiming for 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

They recommend sugar-sweetened drinks should be minimised in children and adults as they found moderate evidence there was an association between sugar sweetened drinks and type 2 diabetes. They also found evidence to link sugar and sugar containing drinks with dental caries. So it is a good idea to cut right down on sugary drinks. This includes, soft drinks, squash, fizzy drinks and energy drinks. Choose drinks with no added sugar – water, tea, coffee, no added sugar squash and diet drinks. This will help to protect our teeth, especially in children.

They did not find anything more sinister than this; it will not immediately harm our health by having more than the recommended amount of sugar in our diets. However, if over a number of months or years we continue to have high amounts of sugar in our diets, this will equate to higher amounts of energy and potentially lead to weight gain. This in turn could lead to other health related disorders such as type 2 diabetes.

By cutting our sugar intake down from 10% of our total energy to 5%, we will save 100 calories per day (as long as we don’t replace it with other sources of calories in our diet!). This was considered to address the energy imbalance and lead to some weight loss in the majority of individuals. The report acknowledges that the reduction in calories could come from other nutrients, (fat, alcohol) but lowering sugar intake is one way of lowering total calorie content.

Again we have lots of work to do to meet this recommendation as the recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey reported that we were exceeding the recommendation of 10% of our energy in our diet as sugars. This is more evident in our children’s diets whom were consuming 14-15% of their dietary energy as sugar. The main source of free sugars in 11-18 year old diets were soft drinks and fruit juice. In adults the main source of free sugars was from table sugar, confectionery, soft drinks, fruit juice, cakes and biscuits.

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 Graphic: ref National Diet and Nutrition Survey 2014, infographic from www.westfieldhealth.com

Don’t panic about trying to count every last gram of sugar in your diet. This will just cause undue stress and take the fun out of food. Just think about where you could be getting high sources of sugar in your diet from: soft drinks, sweets, adding sugar to hot drinks or food, biscuits, cakes. Slowly cut down or replace with low sugar alternatives. While cutting down the sugar, remember to increase the fibre.  Sugar isn’t the only source of calories in our diets; too much fat, alcohol and large portions of starchy carbohydrates will increase your weight if you have too much of them. Think about your whole diet, not single nutrients.

The full report can be found here.

Read more about sugar in our previous sugar posts – ‘The Truth About Sugar…?’ and ‘Don’t be Scared of Sugar’. Read about our ‘Thought on Healthy Eating’ here.