By Shaun Hurdelbrink and Natasha Cole, MPH, RD
Are you aware of sugar’s omnipresence in your life or how much you truly consume? Added sugar is found in many foods: breakfast cereals, fruit juices, granola bars, ketchup, BBQ sauce, soymilk, energy drinks, protein bars, etc. You get the idea. Unsurprisingly, Americans consume “an average of more than 500 calories per day from added sugar alone.”1 Not only do added sugars themselves contribute several hundred calories daily, but sugar’s low nutritional value makes people “continue to feel hungry” after consuming them.2 Sugar not only contributes to obesity around the world, but it is also linked to other health problems such as: hypertension, malnutrition, insulin resistance, and diabetes.1 Similarly, simple carbohydrates (think white bread or white rice) may have a similar effect to sugar on health and their consumption should also be monitored.3 Ultimately, your body is a system and it demands dependable and consistent energy. To your body, eating sugar is like riding a roller coaster. Your energy will spike as sugar is immediately metabolized, but then there’s the inevitable crash that follows soon afterwards.
Ways to reduce consumption of added sugar:
- Think sustainable energy! In general, try to consume a variety of foods that contain complex carbohydrates, fat, and protein. By consuming a variety of macronutrients, your body has multiple and sustainable forms of energy to choose from. As a result, your body’s energy levels will remain stable, allowing you to monitor your appetite better and be more productive in general.
- Be a detective with ingredient lists. Added sugars go by many different names, such as evaporated cane juice, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, and fruit juice concentrates. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so if you’re looking to reduce your consumption of added sugar then pay attention to the first three ingredients.
- Be wary of foods that boast health claims such as “contains real fruit,” “low in fat,” or being “sugar-free.”
“Contains real fruit”: The amount of fruit used in products such as cereals or granola bars is usually rather small and commonly laden with sugar, colorings, and flavorings. Instead, just eat a banana, a bowl of strawberries, or cantaloupe. You’ll get the full nutrition of “real fruit” without any additives.
“Low in fat”: This does not necessarily mean a product is healthier for you, because the fat is “often replace[d] … with carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, or other starches.” In fact, fat is essential to health and should be part of a balanced diet.4
“Sugar-free”: When a product is labeled sugar-free, the sugar is commonly replaced with artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose or aspartame. As a result, the brain receives confusing signals about the food being consumed, “which [may result] in impaired regulation of satiety.” Consequently, artificial sweeteners can be a contributing factor to obesity.5
Bottom line, limit your consumption of added sugars and try to base the healthiness of each meal you consume on its balance of complex carbs, fat, and protein. A good rule of thumb is the recommendation from the American Heart Association: women should limit added sugar to ≤ 100 calories per day (~ 24 grams of sugar) and men should limit added sugar to ≤ 150 calories per day (~36 grams of sugar).6 By reducing your intake of added sugar, the future health benefits will likely be enormous.
1 Lustig, R. H., Schmidt, L. A., & Brindis, C. D. (2012). Public health: The toxic truth about sugar. Nature, 482(7383), 27-29.
2Added sugar in the diet. (n.d.). Retrieved April 5, 2015, from Harvard T.H. CHAN website: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/added-sugar-in-the-diet/
3Carbohydrates and blood sugar. (n.d.). Retrieved April 5, 2015, from Harvard T.H. CHAN website: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/carbohydrates-and-blood-sugar/
4Fats and cholesterol. (n.d.). Retrieved April 5, 2015, from Harvard T.H. CHAN website: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/fats-and-cholesterol-1/
5Horowitz, S. (2013). Sugar alternatives and their effects on health. Alternative & Complementary Therapies, 19(1), 33-39.
6Johnson, R. K., Appel, L. J., Brands, M., Howard, B. V., Lefevre, M., Lustig, R. H., . . .American Heart Association Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism and the Council on Epidemiology and Prevention (2009). Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 120(11), 1011-1020.