Let’s face it, we all know that we could do with less sugar in our diets. However, this is easier said than done since sugar is in so many of the foods we eat including many packaged foods or baked goods, sauces or condiments, and of course, desserts. Sugar can also be found in foods that don’t even taste sweet. Sugar is also naturally found in fruits and vegetables. While sugar, in general, gets a bad reputation—naturally occurring sugar can benefit the body by providing nutrients, keeping blood sugar stable due to longer digestion time, and helps you feel full. Sugar tastes good and provides a quick source of energy.
Not only did humans evolve to prefer sweeter tastes since sweet taste often indicated that food was not poisonous or harmful to one’s health, but we also have genetic and environmental factors that cause us to crave it, which can lead to excessive sugar intake. Over consuming sugar is associated with an increased risk of certain diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Learning what added sugars do to the body, how much sugar you should be consuming each day, and simple ways to reduce or eliminate added sugars in the diet can be a great first step to improving your health!
Where are sugars found?
As previously mentioned, there are two main types of sugars that we talk about in the diet: refined or added sugars and natural sugars. Natural sugars are those sugars found in fruits and vegetables, mainly in the form of fructose, or in dairy products, in the form of lactose. Refined or added sugars are those sugars that are processed to extract the sugar, typically found as sucrose (a combination of fructose and glucose) from sugar beets or sugar cane. This type of sugar is the same white and brown sugar that we can purchase from the grocery store and is also used to sweeten desserts or other foods such as coffee, tea, cereal, or even canned fruits and vegetables. Manufacturers also produce sugar from corn, known as corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. This type of sugar is used in many foods and beverages since it adds sweetness and may improve the stability of the packaged food and enhance texture.
How does sugar impact my body?
Sugar, in all forms, is broken down by the body into the simple carbohydrate glucose to be used as energy. Furthermore, once sugar passes through the digestive system and reaches the small intestine where it came from, whether it was a piece of cake, yogurt, or a carrot does not matter. Once sugar is digested and broken down into glucose it is released into the bloodstream and delivered to the rest of your body, where your muscles, organs, and other tissues convert it into energy or store it for later. However, the type of sugar that you consume, natural vs. refined, is broken down differently which can impact your body and overall health differently. The body absorbs and breaks down refined sugars quickly, leading to elevated blood sugar levels, and large spikes in insulin, the hormone that helps cells remove glucose from the blood. Due to how quickly the body can break down these forms of sugar a person may still feel hungry after eating and is likely not getting many nutrients from those foods that contain added sugars. On the other hand, natural sugars metabolize slower, which can help promote fullness and keep hunger at bay. Foods that contain added sugars also are nutrient-rich foods that benefit the body with energy, maintain proper functioning, and help to prevent disease.
What amount of sugar should I be consuming each day?
Most of us probably would benefit from eating less sugar each day than we currently do. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average person consumes approximately 42.5 teaspoons of added sugars each day. One teaspoon of sugar is 15 calories which means that many of us are consuming over 600 calories every day from added sugars. Compare this to the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans which recommends that the diet should contain less than 10% of total calories from sugars. The American Heart Association recommends even less, no more than 25 grams (~6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for women and 38 grams of sugar per day for men (~9 teaspoons).
How do I eliminate sugar?
While it may seem overwhelming to try and cut sugar out of your diet, there are lots of ways to satisfy a sweet tooth. Here are some pretty simple changes you can make which can have a significant impact.
- Focus on whole foods — Eat generous amounts of foods that do not come in packages such as fruits, vegetables, grains, lean proteins, and nuts.
- Dine-in — Try swapping out take out and fast food with home-cooked meals and pre-packed lunches or snacks.
- Bulk-up on fiber — Aim to consume the recommended 21 to 38 grams of fiber each day.
- Limit sugary beverages — Try replacing at least 1 soda or sweetened drink (even diet drinks) with water or herbal tea. You can even add fruit and herbs to water so it still has flavor. Depending on your sugary beverage habit, try to swap out 1 more soda, sports drink, or energy drink each week.
- Try alternatives — Use or make your own condiments and sauces, such as ketchup or salad dressings, without added sugar. You can also try sugar-free sweeteners such as monk fruit, fruit juice, or even a dash of cinnamon to add some sweetness without the calories.
- Read labels — Identify hidden ingredients. Ingredients that end with “ose” such as sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, lactose, galactose are forms of sugar. Other hidden sugar sources include dextrin, barley malt, diatese, diastatic malt, turbinado, and ethyl maltol. Additionally, if you see the words “syrup” or “sweet/sweetener” chances are it is a sugar-containing ingredient.
- Keep healthy snacks on hand — Whole fruits and vegetables, trail mix, cheese slices, and raisins are healthy and nutritious.
- Be creative with mixes — Sometimes you just want a sweet treat or can’t think of starting your morning without a glass of juice or bowl of cereal. It is okay to include these foods in moderation in your diet. A quick way to reduce the sugar in many foods is to mix them with a low or sugar-free option. Mixing juice with sparkling water can decrease the amount of sugar and make for a refreshing drink while hacks such as mixing a sugary cereal with a high fiber low sugar one can still be a sweet and tasty option but with added nutrients!