Whether you made a New Year’s resolution to cut back on high-calorie foods or just want to eat healthier in general, taking stock of your sweet tooth and reducing your daily intake of added sugars is a good place to start. Here’s why.
What, exactly, is sugar?
Sugar is the common name given to sucrose, a carbohydrate that is formed by the combination of glucose and fructose. Your body requires sugar as a vital energy source for your brain, central nervous system and red blood cells. Without it, Emily Schmidt, a registered dietitian at the Mayo Clinic, tells Yahoo Life, “the body will be forced to turn protein and fat into glucose anyway, which, in the long run, is physiologically damaging and unsustainable.”
So, the good news is you can eat sugar. But not all sugars are created equal. That’s why knowing what kind of sugar you’re eating and how much is what really matters.
What’s the difference between natural and added sugars?
Experts say that it’s better to consume sugar that naturally occurs in fruits, vegetables and milk products. These food items also come packed with nutrients, including fiber, antioxidants and vitamins, that can provide more health benefits overall.
However, much of our diet in the U.S. consists of sugars that are added during the preparation or processing of foods. These sugars have no nutritional value and can be hidden in foods you may not think of as sweet.
“Often sauces, dressings and even some seasoning mixes contain added sugar,” Cleveland Clinic registered dietitian Erin Rossi tells Yahoo Life. “Other foods that are typically considered healthy, such as granola or smoothies, can have a lot of extra sugar added.”
So how do you keep track? The first place to start is the nutrition label — more specifically, the subcategories listed under “Total Carbohydrates” to see how many grams of added sugar are in the product. “I always tell people, ‘Don’t look at the front of the label — take that extra minute to look at the back of the label and read those ingredients,’” Hoda Hakim-Javadi, a clinical dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “If you can stick to a product that has 10 grams or less of sugar per serving or per container, then you’re in the clear.”
Another tip is to read the list of ingredients. Sometimes added sugars can be listed under different names such as agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup and molasses.
How much is too much sugar?
The American Heart Association recommends that women limit their daily intake of added sugar to 25 grams, and men to no more than 36 grams. Hakim-Javadi puts this into perspective by saying, “One Coke has 39 grams of sugar. That means people are eating 10 teaspoons of sugar every time they drink a can of soda.”
Rossi says that sugary beverages are the biggest source of added sugars found in the typical American diet. “On average, adults are consuming about 77 grams of added sugar each day,” she says. “And children are consuming close to 81 grams each day. This is wildly above the recommended amounts of sugar, and unfortunately, the numbers are climbing each year.”
How sugar affects your health
Overconsumption of sugar can lead to a variety of health problems by causing excess weight gain, which can put people at higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and certain cancers. “If you consume too much sugar, your risk for type 2 diabetes also increases, which can impact eye, nerve and muscle health,” explains Rossi. “Long term, eating too much sugar can also lead to tooth decay.”
Hakim-Javadi adds that having elevated blood sugar levels is also associated with an impaired immune system, something that becomes even more of a concern during a pandemic. “If you have a suppressed immunity as a result of overconsuming sugar and you’re dealing with a virus that relies on your immunity to be at its best, that’s really one thing that we should be more cognizant of,” she says.
How to be sugar smart
Experts say there are, however, ways to appease your sugar cravings. For example, you can reach for fruit, such as berries, to calm a sweet tooth with natural instead of added sugar, while also getting in some filling fiber. Or grab some pistachios: A 2020 study found that eating pistachios helped decrease consumption of sweets, while also providing some protein, healthy fats and fiber.
Since sugary beverages, such as soda, are the biggest source of added sugars, Rossi recommends swapping them out for flavorful alternatives, such as mixing mint or lemon into your drinks instead. If you miss the carbonation of soda, try sparkling water with or without a squeeze of citrus, or kombucha.
Also, “make sure you’re adequately hydrated,” Schmidt suggests. “Sometimes we crave sugar when we’re dehydrated.”
But in the end, you’re only human. Experts say it’s OK to splurge on that sweet treat every once in a while. “I want people to look at sugar consumption as a treat,” says Hakim-Javadi. “Save it for those special occasions where you’re out with friends, and if the restaurant tells you, ‘We have the best cheesecake in Southern California,’ then obviously, order the cheesecake!”
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