Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way right now: sugar is not inherently evil.
As with all the sweet stuff in life, sugar should be enjoyed in moderation. And that’s where the problem begins.
Stephanie Hodges, Registered Dietitian and founder of The Nourished Principles, told us there are drastic differences between sugar found naturally in fruit, and added sugar in products like ice cream and soda.
“When public health nutrition professionals, like myself, talk about reducing sugar, we’re referring to added sugars,” she said.
Even though excessive sugar consumption has declined over the past 20 years, it’s still a prevailing health issue for Americans. In fact, that decline is from an all-time high in 1999. We are still consuming too much sugar.
You may feel like you don’t actually consume very much sugar. You might think those statistics apply to other people. After all, how often does the average American bake and eat cake, enjoy candy or top their food with pure cane sugar? Only on special occasions.
The problem is that added sugar is hidden in all kinds of “healthy” snacks, condiments, pasta sauces and even salad dressings. That’s right. You may be topping your healthy salad with sugar sauce.
A Brief History of Added Sugar
You may be wondering, “How did we get here?” After all, 200 years ago the average American was consuming only two pounds of sugar per year. Today the average American consumes around 57 pounds of sugar annually.
Do you remember those fat-free advertising campaigns in the ‘90s? If you’re not old enough to remember Snackwell’s ads for fat-free cookies and “healthy” snacks, you might notice the remnants of the campaign still lingering on today.
When companies started advertising that foods containing fat equaled weight gain, they had to replace fats with something else that tasted great. That great tasting something was sugar.
Today you’ll find added sugar in everything from yogurt to granola bars to marinades. The ingredient often listed under one of 61 different names for the crystally sweet stuff.
This complexity is why we say sugar itself is not inherently evil. Sugar is found naturally in some very nutritious foods such as fruit, yogurt and milk. It’s added sugar that causes problems.
Health Concerns Linked to Added Sugar
You may want to reduce your intake of added sugar for a variety of reasons. Hodges notes many people reduce sugar to help shed a few pounds, control blood sugar spikes, or reduce the risk of chronic health conditions.
Whatever your reason for reducing sugar in your diet, you’ll find extra motivation here. Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to:
- Obesity and metabolic syndrome
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Chronic inflammation
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
- Dental plaque, cavities, and tooth loss
Additionally, sugar can cause cravings neurologically similar to those of people addicted to alcohol or cocaine. Excessive sugar intake has been shown to affect the brain’s reward center, the limbic system, in an almost identical way to drug addiction.
Sugar cravings can lead to increased sugar intake, mood swings and withdrawal symptoms.
Chronic overconsumption of sugar can even affect the natural balance of hormones that control critical bodily functions. A study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) showed increases in glucose levels in participants with a long history of excessive sugar intake.
This increase can lead the pancreas to release more insulin. As a result, insulin causes the body to store more food calories as fat.
Insulin also affects leptin, a hormone that controls our appetite. Leptin is supposed to let our brains know when we’re full, but increased levels of insulin interfere with our body’s natural messaging.
How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
According to the American Heart Association, women should have no more than six teaspoons or 25 grams of sugar per day, and men should limit their sugar intake to nine teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar per day.
Their recommendation is that sugar should make up no more than 10% of your daily caloric intake, and ideally less than 5%. As it stands, most American diets consist of 15% of calories from sugar, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).
The Road to Reducing Sugar in Your Diet
The good news is that you can start reducing sugar in your diet today. By changing one habit at a time and educating yourself, you can help lower those statistics and improve your health.
Begin Reducing Sugar Slowly
Change is uncomfortable. You don’t have to feel like you need to empty your pantry into the trash right this second. If you regularly consume excess sugar, you can avoid potential withdrawal symptoms by slowly weaning yourself off added sugar.
A great place to start reducing sugar is with beverages. For example, a 12-ounce can of Coke contains 39 grams of sugar. That’s equivalent to 16 packets of sugar. Consider switching to a naturally flavored seltzer water or unsweetened tea for a week and see how much better you feel.
Read Nutrition Fact Labels
The fastest way to start reducing sugar in your diet is by reading the labels on your food and drink.
Hodges cites the recently updated nutrition facts labels as an easy way to identify added sugars. Listed below carbohydrates, you’ll find the amount of sugar added in grams.
Be sure to check the ingredients list as well. Sugar can hide in your food and beverages under one of at least 61 aliases, including corn syrup, agave syrup, apple or grape juice concentrate, demerara, sucanat, xanthan gum, panela, piloncillo, turbinado, muscovado or anything with the suffix “-ose,” like sucrose, glucose, dextrose, fructose and lactose.
Avoid Simple Carbohydrates
The main difference between simple and complex carbohydrates is the rate at which they are absorbed by the body.
Simple carbohydrates, also called monosaccharides and disaccharides, are quickly absorbed by your body, causing your blood sugar levels to spike. White flour, white rice, and white pasta are simple carbohydrates.
Alternatively, complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides. They take longer for your body to digest, raising glucose levels at a slower speed. This means reduced blood sugar spikes and fewer mood swings. Whole grain bread and pasta are complex carbohydrates.
You can avoid products with simple carbohydrates by shopping around the outer aisles of the grocery store or going online. Usually, the aisles on the edges of the store include whole foods like vegetables, fruits, dairy, lean meats, fish, poultry, whole grain carbohydrates, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Your grocery store may also have an aisle dedicated to naturally derived products, like all natural granola bars. These types of goods undergo less processing, which as a rule means less refined or added sugar.
Just remember to read the labels. Even products that appear to be healthy may contain added sugars.
Choose Spices Over Splenda
We all love the taste of sweets, which might make it tempting to replace sugar with artificial sweeteners such as Splenda, Stevia, Equal, Nutrasweet or Sweet N’ Low. Sure, they have few or no calories, but they react in your body and brain in the same way as sugar. In other words, artificial sweeteners can induce sugar cravings.
Avoid the drama and subsequent mood swings by giving spices a try. Often, spices have few to no calories and can enrich the flavor of your snack. For example, try sprinkling cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamom in your oatmeal or yogurt. You can also experiment with extracts like vanilla and almond. These make a delicious difference in your morning coffee or tea.
Focus on Nutritious Foods
The foods with the most added sugar often offer little nutritious value. Muffins, brownies, cakes and pies are loaded with sugar and simple carbohydrates, but lack essential vitamins and minerals that your body needs.
“You must also consider the full nutritional value of a food or beverage item if it contains added sugar,” Hodges said. “For example, if a cup of Greek yogurt has 5 grams of added sugar, I may still choose to consume it because it provides me with other nutrients I am looking for, such as protein, fats to keep me full, and calcium.”
Another example is fruit, mixed nuts, or salted almonds. While fruit is naturally high in sugar, it contains antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that give you energy and aid in digestion. Nuts contain vitamin E, beta-carotene, zinc and protein.
By focusing on foods with high nutritional value, you can reduce sugar intake, nourish your body and stay full longer.
Remind Yourself of the Benefits of Reducing Sugar
It’s easy to get caught up in the fear of the damage excessive sugar intake can cause. Flip the script and focus on the feeling of joy that health and wellness can bring.
By reducing sugar, you may notice:
- Increased energy
- Clearer skin
- Weight loss
- Reduced inflammation
- Decreased mood swings
- More enjoyable — or at least tolerable — doctor and dentist appointments
Self-care is self-love. You may find that taking this step toward better health improves your overall self-esteem and boosts your confidence.
Outside of carefully selecting what foods and beverages you consume, there are also lifestyle changes you can make to help you wean off of sugar.
Try distracting yourself with a walk or an engaging book. You can quell your cravings by drinking a cup of tea, chewing gum or sucking on a mint. You can also try out alternative products, such as nifty little lozenges called MealEnders, that provide a small amount of the sweetness you crave and a sensory cue to ward off additional sugar intake.
Reducing Sugar Is Easier Said Than Done
But it can be done. By making simple alterations to your diet, you can prevent chronic life-threatening conditions and feel better throughout the day. Reducing sugar is the first stop on your road to wellness.
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