“Only the dose makes the poison” – Paracelsus (1493-1541), Swiss physician and alchemist.
Lots of us are trying to skim a little more sugar from our diets these days. And rightly so. Eating too much sugar—even a single daily can of sugary soda—is linked with an increased risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other unhealthy results.
Chances are you would be healthier if you eliminated almost all sugar from your diet. But is that practical for you? The good news is, you don’t need to do that to reach the peak of your health potential. You don’t need to stop eating sweet things! You do, however, need to know what to avoid, and it’s not all obvious stuff like sugary soda.
Here’s how to still eat sugar—and stay healthy.
A peach has natural sugar. So does a sweet potato—and milk. But these “natural” sugars in fruits, vegetables and dairy foods aren’t the real concern. That’s because the sugars found naturally in foods often come packed with fiber, which slows the absorption of these sugars, as well as important nutrients that contribute to health.
The sugar that’s added to processed foods and recipes is another matter. It’s no surprise that there are plenty of added sugars in sugary beverages, cakes, candies, ice cream and other “sweets.” But many recipes used by restaurants and home cooks, and many processed foods you buy at the market, are jammed with hidden added sugar—even ones that don’t taste sweet! It’s this hidden sugar that could—quite literally—kill you, and that you owe it to yourself to minimize.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans set an upper limit on added sugar—10% of total calories per day. Based on a typical 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, that limit allows you 200 calories from added sugar, which works out to 50 grams, or 12½ teaspoons, of added sugar each day.
Does 12½ teaspoons of pure sugar deliberately put into your food each day sound like too little to you? The fact is, we’re eating more than that. The average American woman consumes about 240 calories, and the average man 335 calories, from added sugar, each day. Some people are eating less, of course, but that means others are eating even more. Sometimes, a lot more.
It’s easy to go over the limit. After all, a can of soda can have 10 teaspoons (40 grams) of sugar. Since one gram of sugar has 4 calories, that’s 160 calories from added sugar right there. On top of that, many foods that aren’t “sweets” have added sugar, including yogurt, breakfast cereals, salad dressings, breads, soups, pasta sauces, condiments…even basic vegetables. Consider the popular Le Sueur brand of canned peas. The manufacturer promotes them as “harvested when they’re at their sweetest”—and then just to be sure, we suppose, adds pure sugar to every can. And that’s not unusual.
The first step if you want to stop flooding your body with sugar, of course, is to cut back on obviously high-sugar foods such as cookies, ice cream and soda and other sugary drinks. But then, you must start checking nutrition labels for sugar content—not just on some kinds of prepared foods but on every kind. Remember, you are not necessarily looking for no sugar—most food has some sugar naturally. To get a grip on hidden sugar, compare grams of sugar on food labels within categories of products—one pasta sauce to another, one breakfast cereal to another, etc.—and buy those with little sugar. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to ferret out which sugars are “added” and which are “naturally occurring” in a product via the food label, which lists only “sugars” by amount in grams per serving. Help is coming, though—the FDA will require new food labels by 2018 that specify the amount of “added sugars.”
Until then, look for sources of added sugar in the ingredients list. The closer an ingredient is to the top of the list, the greater amount by weight is in the product. It’s easy to spot ingredients listed specifically as sugar, white granulated sugar, raw sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, etc. But the following ingredients also mean “added sugar”:
Pay attention to prepared ready-to-eat foods that you take home and restaurant meals, too. Most supermarkets and chain restaurants have nutritional information available—all you have to do is ask. What you find may help you make smarter choices, with less added sugar, from the menu. The same is true for home-cooked meals. If your family recipe for meatloaf calls for lots of sugar, why not try making it with less—or none?
Final tip: You don’t have to eliminate sugary treats to have a healthy diet. But save your added sugar grams for where they really give you the most pleasure—a scoop of high-quality ice cream, a really good cookie, a square of gourmet dark chocolate. And to see how small choices at breakfast, lunch and dinner can add up to big reductions in the sugar you eat, see the Bottom Line infographic “Don’t Fall for These Hidden Sugar Traps!”