Recently it’s come to my attention that life with a sweet tooth can be rough.
There’s all sorts of ways that desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages are incorporated into our lives. From birthdays, to weddings, to date night or a fun night out with friends, sweet drinks and sweets are a part of how many of us celebrate life’s moments, big and small.
Even as someone with a degree in nutrition, I know exactly why I shouldn’t have too much sugar, but it’s tough when just about everything in the average American diet is full of it! Add on the extra burden of there being roughly 61 different names for sugar in products, and avoiding excess sugar intake can become a very daunting task.
You’ve probably heard that sugar in excess can have terrible effects on your health. With type II diabetes and obesity still on the rise, it’s no wonder that health professionals are trying to spread the word about how what we eat affects our health.
So what is added sugar? Why should it be avoided? How can you identify it on a food label? That’s the focus of today’s post, so let’s jump in!
What is Added Sugar?
According to the CDC, added sugars are “sugars and syrups added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation.” Meaning, they are not found naturally in the product itself, but are used to enhance flavor, aid in preservation, balance acidity, and more.
Why Should Added Sugars Be Avoided?
Eating too much added sugar can lead to health issues such as:
type 2 diabetes
These diseases can also be exacerbated by excess sugar intake. It is important to be mindful of how much sugar we are consuming daily so that we can prevent these diseases. Put simply, these added sugars contribute negatively to our health, and have no nutritional value of their own. Strictly speaking, it’s a lose-lose situation to consume too many too often.
Side note: I’m not suggesting consuming any amount of added sugar ever is bad, but rather that they should be limited!
How Much Is Too Much?
According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the average American consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar per day.
Leading sources of added sugar in the US are:
grain-based desserts (cookies, cake, pies)
bread & cereals
The USDA outlines the following limits:
Men: 9 teaspoons per day
Women: 6 teaspoons per day
Kids: 3-6 teaspoons per day
What does this look like?
20 oz vitamin water = 8 teaspoons
12 oz can of Coca-Cola = 9.75 teaspoons
A grande (16 oz) Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino beverage made with whole milk = 14.5 teaspoons
Strawberry-flavored Yoplait yogurt, 6 oz = 6 teaspoons
Welch’s Fruit Snacks = 3.5 teaspoons
These are just a few examples of some common foods that you or your children might eat in a day! This gives you a rough idea of just how much sugar we are all consuming on a daily basis.
The Many Names of Sugar
Did you realize sugar can hide from you on a label? Even the most savvy label scanner could overlook some of the names I’m about to mention. Check out some of the lesser-known names for sugar you may find hiding in your products!
coconut palm sugar
dehydrated cane juice
high-fructose corn syrup
Isn’t that crazy to think about? Just when you thought the new nutrition label was making things easier on you by adding a whole section for added sugars…
Although it is important to read how many added sugars are in a product by looking at the nutrition facts label, you should also check the ingredients. There are products that market themselves as having “less sugar” for example. While this may be true compared to the conventional form of the same product, it is important that you check the label to see if there are any of the above names hiding in the first five ingredients on the ingredient list! If so, this means that the product has a significant portion of its’ content composed of sugar, in whatever form that may be.
This does not automatically mean you should not eat such an item, but it does mean that you need to ask yourself more questions before purchasing it.
Are there any “redeeming qualities” that this item possesses that balance out the amount of sugar (fiber, protein, healthy fats, etc)?
Is this something that I am making a significant part of my diet every day, or is it a special treat?
If it is a special treat, then it’s a go! If it’s something that you would be eating on the daily, it might be better to swap it out for a more nutritionally-dense version!
Practical Tips for Reducing Your Intake
1 Swap sugary drinks for water or try adding fresh fruit to your water!
Carry a water bottle around with you. Not only is this more affordable, it has ZERO sugar! It also is important for so much of your body’s processes, keeps you hydrated, helps digestion, and helps keep your skin soft and supple! If water bores you, try adding fresh cucumber or strawberry slices, mint leaves, or lemon slices to it to make it interesting!
If you are thinking it’s not worth it to buy a water bottle, consider this. If you skipped your daily Starbucks run for just ONE week that would save you how much? I’m guessing enough to run to Target or WalMart and buy yourself a water bottle. I rest my case. You can do this! And with the savings plus the health benefits, there is nothing to lose.
2 Skip sugary cereals
Cereals are one of the major culprits for daily excess added sugar intake. Recently I saw Sour Patch Kids cereal at the grocery store! Companies are not even shy about marketing actual CANDY to kids for breakfast, which just about anyone could know is not healthful or setting them up for success. While some things may be obviously full of sugar, other cereals are sneakier. Granola is marketed as a healthier alternative to cereal, but once again: check the label! Some brands of granola have 26g of sugar per cup! The pictures and even the color scheme of the box, however, would have you thinking it is a wholesome and nutritious breakfast. So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record: read your labels, people!
3 Look for “no sugar added” on labels–but still READ the ingredients!
Another option is to try to look for items that have on their label “no sugar added.” This is helpful when you are looking for an item that has only the naturally occurring sugars in it. Some products will say this and still contain artificial sweeteners in the form of sugar alcohols or stevia, but that is another post for another day my friends! You know what I’m about to say in regards to how to know what type of sugar is in your food: check the label 🙂
4 Aim to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, plenty of fiber and whole grains, and protein.
Consuming a balanced diet means you will have less sugar cravings. Typically, you crave simple carbohydrates when you are hungry and your body needs energy ASAP. This is a little bit different for everyone, of course, but generally most of our bodies let us know we need some quick energy by having us crave a quick trip to the candy bowl at work! This is our body’s way of helping us meet our needs. Instead of giving in, however, learn to recognize what your body is trying to tell you: it’s hungry and needs a good, balanced meal to make it through the next few hours!
So, next time you’re in the frozen aisle and you lock eyes with that pint of Blue Bell, don’t be afraid to indulge. All foods fit into a healthy diet, and items with added sugar are no exception. We often consume sweets during times of celebration or during other social events; this is fine too! Don’t be afraid to enjoy special moments with friends and family (or enjoy that pint of Blue Bell on a Netflix night in!) Just remember, moderation should always be your goal with foods high in added sugar. Without monitoring your daily added sugar intake you could be at risk of future adverse health affects such as diabetes, obesity, and tooth decay.
The way I see it, diligence now with my added sugar consumption means that I can continue to enjoy the treats I love when I am older. Always remember to check your labels AND the ingredients list! Informed purchases lead to informed consumption, and that my friends leads to a healthier you!