There’s no doubt that added sugar is taking its toll on the health of Americans. Growing scientific evidence shows that eating too much added sugar is linked to serious diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and liver disease. The key word here is added sugar. Naturally occurring sugar, such as sugar found in dairy and fruit, is not the problem. This is because these natural sources of sugar also include other important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients such as fiber and protein, which help the body more properly digest sugar and prevent a spike in blood sugar. Constant and consistent blood sugar spikes can lead to diabetes.
One glaring problem is that most Americans are eating more added sugar than they realize, partially due to confusing labels not clearly stating that sugar is added. Case in point, there are at least 61 different names for sugar listed on food labels. Another reason for increased added sugar consumption is that sugar is being added to foods that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as having added sugar. Ketchup, spaghetti sauce, salad dressing, BBQ sauce, and yogurt are just a few foods that more often than not, have abundant added sugar.
Just to be clear, we’re not saying that sugar is the ultimate enemy and should be completely eliminated from your diet. Although the Food and Drug Administration has yet to make an official recommendation for sugar intake, health experts recommend that for optimal health it is best to keep sugar consumption at ≤6 tsp. per day for women and ≤9 tsp. per day for men. That comes out to about 100 calories from sugar per day for women and 150 calories from sugar per day for men. Keep in mind that one 12 oz. can of soda has 132 calories from sugar, on average. So if you have just one soda per day, you are over (or close to being over) the recommended amount of daily sugar intake. (*see below)
Using our guide below, try to identify and reduce some of the added sugar from your diet.
Watch out for: any kind of flavored yogurt, especially the kinds with added sprinkles and “fruit”. These kinds of yogurt are usually high in sugar and lower in protein than plain yogurt.
Better: plain yogurt with fresh fruit. You can also throw in some spices to make your own delicious combinations (i.e. apples and cinnamon).
Best: plain Greek yogurt is an even healthier choice. It packs nearly twice as much protein and half as much sugar in the same amount of calories as regular yogurt.
Watch out for: frozen yogurt, sherbet, and sorbets which may appear to be a “healthier” choice than regular ice cream. Often, frozen yogurt has more added sugar than regular ice cream. Manufactures will usually add sugar to replace the fat that was removed, so what you end up with is a product with less fat but more sugar! Always check the label.
Better: ice cream made with the fewest ingredients and the least amount of sugar.
Best: the home made kind. Freeze a banana, and then blend it with your favorite milk and fresh fruit or peanut butter. This banana based “ice cream” is full of fiber and protein and has no added sugar. You may be surprised at how creamy and tasty it really is.
Watch out for: all regular and diet soda. Diet sodas have been linked with increased risk of diabetes and higher weight.
Better & Best: water. If you want to add some natural flavor to your water, try adding in a squeeze of citrus from fresh lemon, lime, oranges, etc. For a refreshing summer time variation, try adding cucumber, mint, or other fruits such as strawberries.
Watch out for: vitamin enhanced water. Most of these drinks are high in unnecessary sugar. One popular brand has 31g of sugar per 20 oz. serving. That’s more sugar than is recommended to have in an entire day (25g).
Better & Best: simply drinking water and eating a healthy diet should be a sufficient source of vitamins and minerals. If you really want an extra boost of vitamins and minerals, have a piece of nutrient dense food like blueberries or kale.
Watch out for: most granola bars are loaded with sugar and fat. Check the ingredients label and you’ll likely see chocolate, high fructose corn syrup, and many other artificial ingredients.
Better: lookfor a granola bar that has a small ingredients list, at least 4 grams of fiber, no more than 8 grams of added sugar, and is around 150 calories per serving.
Best: make your own granola from whole oats, nuts, seeds, and non-sugar sweetened dried fruit.
Watch out for: fruit juices with added sugar and other ingredients. Theyare high carb (sugar) and low protein drinks, which will cause a spike in blood sugar and likely lead to headaches, mood swings and fatigue.
Better: 100% whole fruit juice. Even though these juices are still high in sugar, they are a better option than the juices with added sugar.
Best: eat the whole fruit or vegetable. It’s that simple. When you eat the whole piece, you’re getting all the fiber and nutrients contained in the skin which will help your food digest more slowly and lead to a slow steady release of energy which won’t cause you to crash later on.
Watch out for: Many seemingly healthy cereal brands are sold in boxes that are covered with health claims and buzzwords from popular fads that boast things like “whole grain”, “organic”, “with Greek yogurt!”, and “added protein”. But, if you read the label, you’re likely to see it’s all an illusion. All that added protein? 1 gram. Many cereals have more sugar in one serving than is recommended for the entire day. What you probably won’t see is any decent amount of protein or fiber.
Better: aim for a cereal that has at least 4 grams of fiber and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving. The first few ingredients should be whole grains, whole oats, etc. Sugar or any of its derivatives should not be!
Best: Steel cut oatmeal. With no added ingredients, you’re sure to get a wholesome start to your day.
At the end of the day, try to focus on eating more unprocessed, whole foods, as these foods do not have added sugar. When you do purchase processed food, always read the label and familiarize yourself with all the different names for sugar.
* since this blog was written, the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans have recommended that added sugar be no more than 10% of total daily calories for adults.