Why You Should Consider Reducing Your Added Sugar Intake
To eat a diet full of added sugar, one does not have to regularly guzzle soda or devour cupcakes. Added sugar is simply that: added. It is added to several unsuspecting products including foods considered “healthy” such as cereals, breads, fruit juices, granola bars, condiments, pasta sauces and salad dressings. To be clear, eating fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy that contain natural sugar is part of a healthy and balanced diet. However, sugars removed from their original sources and added to foods are what to be wary of.
The American Heart Association recommends:
- No more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories per day of added sugar for the average woman
- No more than 9 teaspoons or 150 calories per day of added sugar for the average man
According to a report by the University of North Carolina, roughly 20 percent of Americans exceed 700 calories of added sugar per day. (That’s more than an entire cup of sugar!) A diet high in sugar can increase one’s risk for health complications, such as tooth decay, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and weight gain.
As sweet as a sugar rush may feel after eating an afternoon treat, the crash that soon follows is anything but. That little pick-me-up you hope will carry you through the rest of the day with energy and focus, may actually make it more difficult to do so. Excess refined sugar, or added sugar not found in food naturally, can not only impact mental clarity, but it may deter you from exercising, too.
Over time, eating too much added sugar may also shrink your brain. A recent study showed that the hippocampus – the brain region known for learning and memory – is smaller in individuals who eat unhealthy diets. This may be the first study to show these results in humans, not just mice or research animals.
And added sugar isn’t just in the food we eat. It’s in what we drink, too. “Sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugars in the American diet. They should be limited to 36 ounces or 450 calories a week. A can of regular soda packs about 35 grams of added sugars, equivalent to 8.75 teaspoons or 140 calories. Reducing or cutting out soda, fruit juices, sports and energy drinks as well as enhanced waters, sweetened teas and sugary coffee drinks can go a long way toward [decreasing added sugar intake],” said Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., chair of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee and professor of nutrition and medicine at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
The Potential Effects of Reducing Added Sugar From Your Diet
Reducing added sugar from your diet has the potential to:
- Improve your motivation to exercise
- Enhance your mental clarity and focus at work
- Shrink your risk for developing type 2 diabetes
- Help you manage a healthy weight
- Encourage better sleep and quality rest
- Support healthy skin
- Reduce your risk for heart disease,
- Lower your risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia
- Increase your overall energy
- Break your addiction to the sweet stuff
10 Easy Ways to Slash Added Sugar From Your Diet
- Learn the many names of sugar. Sugar has many disguises when it comes to finding it in the ingredients section of food labels. Check out our list (below) of the various names added sugar can have so the next time you go to the grocery store, you won’t be fooled. Note: if there are several different sugars on a label, it is probably an indication the food isn’t the healthiest option.
- Buy unsweetened. Finding foods labeled “no sugar added” or “unsweetened” at your local grocery store is easier than you may think. There are many unsweetened versions of common sugary foods like oatmeal, applesauce, yogurt, nut butters and non-dairy milk.
- Always read labels. Ingredients are listed in order of amount (in descending order). So if sugar is near the top of the list, consider passing on that item. It is important to get into the habit of reading labels because you deserve to know what you are putting into your body. The old saying “you are what you eat” rings true because your body extracts nutrients from the foods you consume. If your diet is full of added sugars, chemicals and other additives, you may not function at your finest.
- Don’t jump in feet first. While it is wonderful if you can go added-sugar-free cold turkey, this is not realistic for most people, so take baby steps every day. For example, if you normally eat sweetened yogurt for breakfast, try mixing half plain unsweetened yogurt and half of your regular sweetened yogurt. Slowly transition to unsweetened yogurt with the only added sweetness coming from fresh fruit. Or, if you drink coffee in the morning with two scoops of sugar, have one less scoop. You get the picture.
- Include protein and fat. Simple carbohydrates riddled with sugar can make blood sugar rise and fall swiftly, causing a person to be hungry again soon after eating. Pairing protein with healthy fats and fiber can slow the release of insulin and keep a person full longer. “At breakfast, that means adding almonds to your usual oatmeal or pairing eggs with your morning toast, and for your midday snack, a slice of turkey breast or cheese along with your apple,” said Amari Thomsen, owner of Chicago-based nutrition consulting practice Eat Chic Chicago. “Fats are a key player because they help keep you fuller for longer, thus helping to decrease your desire for sugar,” said Diane Sanfilippo, certified nutrition consultant and author of The 21 Day Sugar Detox. Try to consume only natural fats from avocados, nuts, seeds and heart-friendly oils such as olive oil.
- Don’t substitute with fake sugar. It may be tempting to switch to diet options or artificial sweeteners, but we don’t recommend doing so. Your body expects calories and nutrients when you consume something sweet, but fake sugars don’t provide either. According to a 2010 review in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, artificial sugars (found in diet options) were associated with weight gain, not weight loss.
- Spice things up. Nature offers a variety of wonderful spices, herbs and extracts to flavor your food. Rather than adding sugar to your morning beverage, add a sprinkle of cinnamon to your coffee or lemon zest to your tea.
- Avoid drinking sugar. It might sound intuitive – “That’s silly; I would never drink sugar” – but beverages like soda have an abundance of added sugar. Did you know some store-bought fruit juices, like orange juice, can also be high in added sugar?
- Flavored waters can have 8 teaspoons of added sugar per bottle or more.
- Bottled iced teas and fruit juices (such as orange or apple juice) can have 9 teaspoons of added sugar per bottle or more.
- Energy drinks can have 7 teaspoons of added sugar per can or more.
- Bottled coffee beverages can have 8 teaspoons of added sugar per bottle or more.
- Packaged smoothies can have more than 12 teaspoons of added sugar per serving.
- Indulge occasionally. It is okay to give in to your sweet-tooth on special occasions. Life is about balance. Try to set guidelines for yourself, such as: only enjoy dessert on Saturdays after dinner. However, it is important not to treat eating sugar as a reward. By cutting added sugar out of your life, you are already rewarding both your body and mind.
- Don’t give up. Becoming totally sugar-aware isn’t easy. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “solving [sugar addiction] is more complicated than solving drug addiction, because it requires reducing the drive to eat unhealthy foods without affecting the desire to eat healthy foods when hungry.” But if you keep at it, you will start to feel the positive health effects and your body will thank you for your determination.
What About Natural Added Sweeteners?
Though it is not recommended to consume any sort of added sugar, sometimes it is unavoidable. For those special occasions, here are five natural added sugar alternatives.
- Dates – These little fruits naturally have a caramel-like taste and can be an addition to desserts, such as puddings and bars instead of granular or liquid sugar. Dates contain such nutrients as vitamin B6, vitamin A, potassium and calcium.
- Molasses – Molasses is what is left over during the process of refining sugar cane into white sugar. Molasses contains such nutrients as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6.
- Honey – This golden syrup is derived from the pollen collected by bees. The darker the honey is, the higher the antioxidant value. To get the most nutrient and antioxidant content use raw or unprocessed honey. Honey contains such nutrients as vitamin B6, niacin, thiamine, iron and riboflavin.
- Maple Syrup – Real maple syrup is made by boiling the sap of maple trees into a concentrated sweet liquid. Though it is often associated with pancakes and waffles, maple syrup can be used as a sweetener in ice cream, baked goods, oatmeal or even yogurt. Maple syrup contains such nutrients as calcium, zinc and riboflavin.
- Stevia – Stevia can taste 100 times sweeter than table sugar, calorie-free and is sourced from a South American shrub called stevia rebaudiana of the Asteraceae family, which also includes sunflowers and chrysanthemums. Though it is calorie-free, this does not necessarily mean you will lose weight if you swap out sugar for stevia. Stevia contains such nutrients as potassium, iron, zinc, magnesium and vitamin B3.
The Alter Egos of Added Sugar
Always check both the label and ingredients before you purchase a food item. Knowledge is power, and you deserve to know what you are putting into your body. Added sugar can be disguised with many different names, so it is important to be aware of what to look for.
Some alternative names for sugar are:
- Agave Nectar
- Barbados Sugar
- Barley Malt
- Beet Sugar
- Blackstrap Molasses
- Brown Rice Syrup
- Brown Sugar
- Buttered Sugar
- Cane Juice Crystals
- Cane Juice
- Cane Sugar
- Carob Sugar
- Caster Sugar
- Coconut Sugar
- Corn Sweetener
- Corn Syrup
- Corn Syrup Solids
- Crystal Line Fructose
- Date Sugar
- Demara Sugar
- Diastic Malt
- Ethyl Maltol
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Fruit Juice Concentrate
- Golden Sugar
- Golden Syrup
- Grape Sugar
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Invert Sugar
- Icing Sugar
- Malt Syrup
- Maple Syrup
- Molasses Syrup
- Muscovado Sugar
- Organic Raw Sugar
- Oat Syrup
- Confectioner’s Sugar
- Rice Bran Syrup
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum Syrup
- Tapioca Syrup
- Turbinado Sugar
- Yellow Sugar
Here are some places to visit for more information regarding sugar intake:
“Advisory Report,” Staff Writers, health.gov, Feb. 2015.
“Decoding Sugar Addiction,” Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, news.mit.edu, Jan. 29, 2015.
“10 Easy Ways to Slash Sugar From Your Diet,” Jessica Migala, time.com, May 26, 2014.
“How Sugar Alters Our Mood,” Olivia Kelleher, thatsugarfilm.com, Jan. 28, 2016.
“Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-like Behavior,” Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada and Bartley G. Hoebel, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, March 2009.
“Sugars, Added Sugars and Sweeteners,” Staff Writers, heart.org, Jun 29, 2015.
“The Truth About Sugar Addiction,” WebMD Staff, webmd.com, Feb. 23, 2016.
“The Truth About Sugar,” Kerry Torrens, bbcgoodfood.com, July 17, 2015.
“Type 2 Diabetes,” Mayo Clinic Staff, mayoclinic.org, Jan. 13, 2016.
“Western Diet is Associated with a Smaller Hippocampus: A Longitudinal Investigation,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, Sept. 8, 2015.
“The Wrong White Crystals: Not Salt but Sugar as Aetiological in Hypertension and Cardiometabolic Disease,” James DiNicolantonio and Sean Lucan, openheart.bmj.com, Dec. 10, 2014.