'My husband has quite a sweet tooth and indulges in chocolate, lollies and icecream daily, whereas I have more of a savoury tooth and like chips, crackers and olives. I realise both are detrimental to our heath, but which is doing more damage - extra salt or sugar?"
This is a familiar story, Liz, and I am sure you mirror the eating habits of many New Zealand families. Both salt and sugar carry significant risks to your health, and it is the quantity you eat that is important.
In general, the foods we crave are high in either salt or sugar. It is not often you hear the words "I'm desperate for a salad" pass anyone's lips. Moderation with both would be my advice.
If we look at your husband first, the dangers of sugar are well documented. Two hundred years ago, sugar was not readily available. Our ancestors might have had an occasional taste of it, in a piece of fruit or a little honey.
Unfortunately, from a health point of view, we have since worked out how to manufacture sugar and consumption has escalated to an alarming level.
Brisbane lawyer David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison: Why sugar makes us fat, comments that modern men feast on sugar from the moment we wake up - consuming large amounts in our cereal and fruit juices at breakfast alone.
Sugar is routinely added to so many different foods and beverages that most of us consume far more than we realise - an estimated 33 kilograms a year, according to Gillespie.
Sugars, both processed and natural, are forms of carbohydrate and can be converted by the body to make energy. However, if your body isn't burning off that energy, it is then deposited as fat.
Fruit, vegetables and dairy products all naturally contain sugar, but it is the added sugar found in soft drinks, sweet and processed foods that causes the most harm. These foods contribute excess calories to your diet, but provide little nutritional value.
They also tend to have a high fat content, such as the chocolate and icecream your husband is snacking on.
Eating too many foods with added sugar and high fat content will put you at risk of:
Weight gain. Excess sugar is a common cause of obesity, which, in turn, is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, strokes and many other medical problems.
Poor nutrition. If you are filling up with sugary snacks, you are missing out on essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. This also applies to people who fill up with soft drinks, instead of water and milk.
Tooth decay. Current guidelines advise that no more than 10 per cent of your total daily calories should be derived from sugars of any type. However, this is quite hard to calculate. So if your husband wants to try breaking his sweet-tooth habit, he could start by simply substituting some of the higher-fat options he usually indulges in, such as chocolate and icecream, for low-fat yoghurts or fresh fruit.
The dangers of salt are perhaps less well-known. It, too, is a recent addition to our diet, being used by our ancestors merely for preserving foods, because it was too costly to use for flavouring.
Now food companies add it to a multitude of processed foods, at times in horrifying quantities (a quarter-pounder burger with cheese from a well-known fast food chain contains almost half the recommended daily allowance).
The main health hazard of salt, or sodium chloride, is its association with high blood pressure. Untreated, this is a big risk factor for heart disease and strokes. Sadly, many foods that contain salt, especially chips and crackers, are also very high in fat, which adds more risk.
Recommendations are that we should consume no more than 2300 milligrams of sodium a day (equivalent to 5750mg of salt), although most people in developed countries massively exceed this recommendation. If it is the salt you are craving, reduce the fat content of your snacks, as well as choosing lower-sodium options.
Olives, for example, or lower- fat crackers, may still make you feel as though you have fulfilled your savoury craving, without having the same health risks.
Salt is known to be addictive, so it is possible to slowly wean yourself off the taste, and within about four weeks, you probably won't miss it at all.
If you can try to minimise the number of treats or snacks you have each day, or try to substitute with healthier options containing less salt or sugar, you will be better off. Your example will rub off on those around you, so, ultimately, the whole family should benefit from your good eating habits.
Cathy Stephenson is a general practitioner, medical forensic examiner and mother of three. If you have a question for her, write c/o Features Editor, The Dominion Post, PO Box 3740, Wellington 6140, or email email@example.com.
- The Dominion Post
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