When I was young, it seemed so innocent.
I would sit down for my morning cereal, complete with a couple teaspoons of this fine powder sprinkled on top. It didn’t matter that the cereal was already sweet.
I’d head to lunch at school and dip my huge chocolate chip cookie into a small carton of chocolate milk as my daily lunch dessert. Probably one of the reasons why I’m a chocolate addict now.
My pre-dinner snack was more sweetness, typically consisting of a cinnamon flavored Pop-Tart or a similar treat.
Dinner was accompanied by multiple glasses of sweet beverages like kool-aid or punch.
At the time, the biggest fear about sugar intake was “spoiling our appetites” or “bouncing off the walls,” which were never real concerns of mine.
But now, years later, we all know the dangers of high sugar intake.
Even still, that hasn’t stopped the food industry from adding sugar to EVERYTHING.
A couple weeks ago, I discussed several reasons why overly processed foods should be limited (missed that article? Check it out here).
In that article, I mentioned one of the easiest ways to make a food to taste good is to add sugar, which helps the food industry sell more products.
I stated, “Our need for sweets drives up profits, which creates a cycle of companies giving us more of what we want, even at the expense of our own health. So, sugar is added to most packaged foods, which can quickly become a problem.”
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar (24g) for women and 9 teaspoons (36g) for men per day.
The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar each day! I think It’s safe to say we have a problem.
ADDED vs. NATURAL SUGAR
Sugar is found naturally in foods like fruit, some veggies, dairy products, legumes and grains.
To make it very clear, our bodies process sugars the same, whether they are from a natural source or a product that has been sweetened, like sodas.
But adding sugar to a food adds calories without adding any of the additional nutrients we need.
We need a certain amount of calories a day to maintain our weight, and we need a certain amount of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) to keep our bodies functioning properly.
When we eat a piece of fruit, we are eating the natural sugar, plus fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that contribute to our health.
On the other hand, when we drink a soda, we’re consuming carbonated water, sugar, colors, flavors, and caffeine, none of which our bodies need.
And that’s the thing.
The soda is giving you 140 calories without contributing any nutrients along with it.
Added sugar is like that guest that comes to the potluck empty-handed, but with a big appetite. It’s not bringing anything, but it’s taking up space for something else that could be a better choice.
Many packaged foods have added sugar, meaning added calories. Over time, these added calories cause us to pack on extra weight, causes tooth decay, and increases risk for various chronic diseases.
High sugar intake has been linked to increased belly fat and risk of high blood pressure, high triglycerides and cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE EAT SUGAR
When we eat sugar, a hormone named insulin is stimulated from the pancreas. It helps sugar get pulled out of the bloodstream and into the cells, where some is converted into energy.
The sugar that is not used immediately is stored in our liver and muscles, which can only hold so much. Most importantly, once our liver and muscles can’t hold any more stored sugar as carbohydrates, the excess is converted to fat. Hello, weight gain.
The more sugar you eat, the more fat that’s stored and the less fat that’s burned off. In other words, your high sugar intake is killing your weight loss goals.
Over time, high consumption of sugar leads to constantly elevated insulin levels (and very little fat breakdown). When insulin stays high, it leads to increased risk of insulin resistance. This means cells are no longer responsive to insulin and blood sugar levels remain high, causing damage to cells.
When our bodies can no longer regulate our blood sugar levels on its own, this increases risk for diabetes, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, etc.
CHECKING THE LABEL
To limit overconsumption of added sugars, aim to eat fresh and minimally processed foods as often as possible.
When you do purchase a packaged food, you can check the nutrition label to gauge how much sugar has been added.
In the “Total Carbohydrates” section, the package lists how much sugar is in the food. Keep in mind, this number typically includes, both, the total amount of natural and added sugars combined.
For example, a container of yogurt will have natural sugar from the milk, plus added sugar for flavor. Most labels will not separate the sugars to tell you how much sugar has been added and how much is natural. It will only show the total grams of sugar, like the label above on the left.
Some products will have the added sugars separated out, like the label on the right. The nutrition label is currently in the process of being redesigned to include the amount of added sugar in a product. Companies have until year 2021 to reflect these changes. So, currently, only a few labels will show the amount of added sugars until the changes have been fully implemented.
Want to know whether a product is high in sugar? Check the label and divide the grams of sugar by four. That will give you a rough estimate of how many teaspoons of sugar the food has. Remember, the recommendation is no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and 9 teaspoons for men.
SUGAR BY ANY OTHER NAME
The ingredients list will also help indicate whether sugar has been added. Ingredients are listed from most used to least used items, so the closer sugar is to the beginning of the list, the more that’s been used.
Sugar has various names, so it can be tricky trying to identify them on the label. Here’s a handy list that includes FIFTY-SIX different names sugar can go by:
The more of these products close to the top of the ingredients list, the more sugar the product has.
REDUCE ADDED SUGAR
According to the FDA, when sugar is consumed in excess, it becomes more difficult to also eat foods with enough dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals and still stay within calorie limits.
Because the average person is consuming twice the recommended amount of added sugar, many of us are overweight and/or malnourished and deficient in nutrients.
Reducing your sugar intake will have to be a conscious decision as a part of your fitness journey.
- Eat foods as fresh as possible, and check the nutrition label on packaged goods for added sugars. Some of your favorite foods may have more sugar than you think! Remember, divide the grams of sugar by 4 to get an estimate on the number of teaspoons.
- Replace sugar-sweetened beverages with water or other calorie-free beverages. The most common sources of added sugars are sugar-sweetened beverages, snacks, and sweets. Sugar-sweetened beverages are the biggest source, making up 47% of added sugar calories. This includes not only sodas, but fruit drinks, coffees, teas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and alcoholic beverages.
- Reduce your portion size of products that are high in sugar.
- Limit use of condiments, which are normally sweetened with sugars. Salad dressings, ketchup, barbecue sauces, honey mustard, jellies/jams, and syrups are all sources of added sugar.
- Add fresh fruit as a sweet topping instead of adding sugar. Baking fruit also helps to enhance the sweet flavor.
- Prepare your meals at home so you can control the amount of sugar that’s added.
- Save sweet desserts for special occasions instead of making them a part of your daily diet.
Added Sugars. American Heart Association website. April 2018.
Added Sugar in the Diet. Harvard School of Public Health website.
Added Sugars: Don’t Get Sabotaged by Sweeteners. Mayo clinic website. January 2016.
What Are Added Sugars. USDA ChooseMyPlate.gov website. November 2016.
Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. US Food & Drug Administration website. November 2018.
Sources of Added Sugar. The Sugar Association website.
Looking to Reduce Your Family’s Intake of Added Sugars? Here’s How. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Eat Right website. July 2018.