Scientifically speaking, sugar in and of itself is simply a carbohydrate broken down into it’s most basic form: glucose. Sugar can come from all sorts of foods, including natural sources such as fruit, vegetables, and other plant-based foods. These forms of sugar can be incredibly healthy and full of nutrients. However, much of the sugar we consume today is in the form of “added” sugar—the type of sugar that is processed, added to food and does not naturally occur in food products.
During the past few decades, more and more processed sugar has been incorporated into a wide variety of foods—beverages, condiments, cereal, bread, yogurt, seasonings, salad dressings, and etc. In consequence, added sugar consumption in the US has increased dramatically over the past few decades to 80g (or 20 teaspoons) of sugar per day. As a frame of reference, current recommendations from the American Heart Association advocate no more than a maximum daily intake of 24g (6tsp) of sugar for women and 36g (9 tsp) for men.
With rising rates of chronic disease in the US, many people are interested in the link between added sugar and preventable disease. Current research is promising and associates excessive added sugar consumption to many common health problems, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol and triglycerides) metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes and more. While added sugar is not the sole cause of these diseases and health issues, it certainly is a contributing factor.
As a Registered Dietitian, my job is to help patients strategize and find ways to decrease their intake of added sugar. Does this mean you can never let a grain of added sugar cross your lips again? Not necessarily—that wouldn’t be very realistic for most people! However, research does show there certainly are great benefits to a diet low in added sugar. This usually involves looking at a patient’s current diet, finding the sources of added sugar in the foods they eat, and constructing creative and maintainable strategies to reduce their added sugar intake. Besides the obvious sources, such as sweetened beverages, candy, desserts and etc, we look at hidden sources of sugar as well. Some examples might be breads, cereals, condiments, dressings, sauces, dairy products, and pre-packaged meals. Here are some basic strategies I use with patients to reduce their added sugar intake with these foods.
- Be mindful! Choose which sources of added sugar you’re willing to eliminate all-together, and which you’re not. From there, make compromises. Choose added sugars wisely, where they are worth it to you, and make a trade-off somewhere else.
- Identify the triggers that increase your desire for sugar—stress, fatigue, at the end of a meal, feeling emotional, and etc. Discover productive distractions and ways to cope with these triggers.
- Buy unsweetened versions of foods, if possible. Sweeten them slightly yourself if needed. For instance, buy plain greek yogurt and add 1 teaspoon of honey or pure maple syrup. This can make plain foods taste a bit better, and dramatically decrease the sugar content as well. Or, mix half sweetened and half unsweetened products.
- When eating chocolate, choose bars with a higher % of cocoa—the darker the chocolate, the less added sugar, more fiber and more antioxidants!
- Make your own salad dressings—you can include healthy oils, vinegars, fresh or dried herbs, sea salt, black pepper, lemon/lime juice and/or a small amount of honey for a bit of sweetness.
- Make homemade desserts with sources of natural sweetness, such as bananas, dates, prunes, and etc.
- Choose sparkling water over soda and add a bit of frozen berries and/or some stevia to enhance the flavor
- Opt for homemade versus store-bought whenever possible.
- Use small bowls and/or pre-portion foods that contain added sugar, so the quantity you consume is limited to an appropriate amount
- Keep a tally, if needed, of sugar-sweetened foods you eat each day. This can help some clients stay on track and choose their added sugars wisely.