Sickly sweet: sugar consumption and our health

A glass of cola is being poured into a glass with ice that is sitting on a wooden table next to plates of bread and bruschetta

Queensland’s sugar consumption is no different to elsewhere in the world – it is excessive, exceeds global health recommendations and contributes to our obesity crisis.

As calls continue for a levy to be introduced on sugary drinks in Australia, here is the lowdown on how much of the sweet stuff is in the average diet and the impact it is having on our health.

Sneaky sugars on our plates

Australians, on average, consume about half a kilo of sugar each week – an amount that would surprise most people because much of it is invisible. Large amounts of sugar are smuggled into our diets through sweetened products such as cakes, pies, lollies and sugary drinks.

The sugar in savoury products – think pasta sauces, tomato paste and pre-made soups – is even more hidden, making it hard to keep track of our intake. Adding to the confusion is that sugar comes under many names – glucose, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, dextrose, molasses, beet sugar and treacle to name just a few!

How we stack up on sugar

The World Health Organisation recommends sugars make up no more than 10% of our total dietary energy intake (kilojules), or less than 12 teaspoons per day (this guideline does not apply to the natural sugars found in fresh fruits and vegetables)1. Reducing this to 5% or 6 teaspoons is even better for us2.

The level of sugar we actually consume is 11% of daily kilojoules among adults and 13% for children3. The good news is that this has dropped over the last decade. However, just over half of Australians exceed the recommended 10% daily limit3. Most concerning, the bulk of added sugars (81%) Australians consumed in 2011-12 were from sugary drinks and discretionary food3. That is, unhealthy food, often packed with cheap sugar.

Too much sugar a health hazard

Eating large amounts of sugar has a direct connection to tooth decay and weight gain, setting the scene for other health problems including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease and some cancers.

Diet-related chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, remain a huge challenge across Queensland, with 210,593 adults known to be living with the condition in 20184.

Poor diet has a big impact

A diet high in sugar-laden foods – that tend to be high in energy with little nutritional value – is showing up on the scales. In 2017-18, 16% of Queensland children were overweight and 8.3% were obese, equating to 25% of kids being above a healthy weight5. This represents a huge shift from earlier decades. In comparison, Australia’s childhood overweight and obesity rates in 1985 were 10.2% and 1.6%, respectively6.

The rise in obesity rates over that time can be explained to a degree by several factors. Evidence suggests children’s energy intake has increased, linked to diets made up of more sugary drinks and high-kilojoule food. Incidental activity also appeared to drop, while screen time went up. The food market has also changed, with kids exposed to a relatively high number of junk food ads.

Tips for cutting back

When it comes to healthy eating, balance is key. Most sugar in people’s diets comes from pre-packaged and processed products, so it pays to focus what you eat on fresh foods. Here are some ways to cut down:

  • Make water the drink of choice.
  • Limit sugary drinks such as soft drinks, cordials and fruit drinks.
  • Fill up on in-season vegetables and fruit, along with lean protein and legumes, wholegrain grains, breads and wraps.
  • Limit pre-packaged foods and baked goods such as lollies, cakes, muffins and biscuits.
  • Try these smart swaps: swap fruit juice for water, sugary muesli bars for unsalted popcorn and flavoured yoghurt for plain yoghurt (top with fresh fruit).
  • Watch out for sneaky added sugars in products such as salad dressing and pasta sauces. Look for products with no added sugar or make your own.
  • Read food labels. Check the ‘per 100g’ column of the nutrition information panel and compare against this guide. Remember to watch out for the different names for sugar.


[1] Royal Society Te Apārangi (2022) How much sugar should we eat?

[2] World Health Organisation (2015) WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2017) Australian Health Survey: Consumption of added sugars, 2011-12

[4] Queensland Health (2018) The health of Queenslanders 2018, Report of the Chief Health Officer Queensland

[5] Queensland Health (2020) The health of Queenslanders 2020, Report of the Chief Health Officer Queensland

[6] Xu et al (2018) The trends and prevalence of obesity and morbid obesity among Australian school-aged children