It’s January, and there’s a solid chance “eat better” is on your list of goals and resolutions. If you’ve turned to the internet for advice and inspiration, you’re likely facing a wall of information and misinformation. Nutrition advice comes in cycles: it was all about calories, then it was about food combining. Fat was bad for a while, now sugar is bad. The advice is sometimes confusing, often rooted in norms that glorify certain body types, and almost always served with a side of someone selling something. No wonder you’re fed up (no pun intended). With all this noise, how do you find a true signal? What does helpful advice look like? A good place to start with is the common sense test. Does it sound right, or is it too good to be true? Then, consider the source: are multiple sources without a clear financial interest in agreement? One tip currently making the rounds that passes with flying colors is this: avoid added sugars. Why is this good advice? Let’s dig in.
How did added sugars become the norm?
We live in the age of of highly processed foods. “Processed” exists on a spectrum, with cracked grains and frozen veggies on one end and twinkies and soylent on the other. Though originally processing helped foods last longer without spoiling, and thus feed more people, it’s gotten out of hand. Food is increasingly produced and distributed by large corporations whose goals are less about high-quality nutrition and more about the bottom line. Foods are formulated to be appealing and addictive (for a detailed study of this effect, see Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat). One strategy to make food taste good is to add sugar. This practice really took hold in the 1990s when the fad was to limit fat. Low-fat “diet” foods don’t taste great unless you replace the fat with something appealing — like sugar. Even as eating fat is coming back into vogue, added sugars have stayed.
What’s the problem with added sugars?
Added sugars create a number of problems in the body. First, they are energy dense but nutrient poor. This means that they can lead to excess calorie intake, leaving you overfed but undernourished. It’s not just about weight, though. Consumption of added sugars is linked to systemic inflammation, including many diseases with an inflammatory component, such as:
- cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and heart disease
- liver disease
- breast cancer
The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugars be limited to less than 10% of your daily calories. This number is probably still too high — the advisory committee suggested reducing it to 6%, but that didn’t make it into this version. For most Americans, though, even shooting for 10% (which is on average 12 teaspoons’ worth) would be an improvement. The current evidence suggests that Americans’ mean intake of added sugars across age, sex, and ethnicity is over 16 teaspoons daily. Surprised? Think this couldn’t possibly be true of you? Let’s take a look.
Searching for sugar
The Food & Drug administration (FDA) is responsible for food labeling regulations in the U.S. In 2016, the updated label included “Added Sugars” for the first time, and now you can find it under “total sugars” on packaged foods. This number should be as close to zero as possible. Note that this doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars, such as those in whole fruits. Though sweet, this kind of sugar is generally accompanied by fiber and other nutrients, reducing its impact on your body.
Armed with this information, consider auditing your regular food and beverage choices to see where you’re getting added sugars now. It’s not just from sweets! Start with low-hanging fruit: do you drink sweetened beverages? This is by far the biggest contributor. Soda, sweet tea, flavored coffee and tea drinks (I’m looking at you, Starbucks), and even juice can give you well over your daily allotment in one go. Packaged foods are another common source. Even apparently healthy foods like jarred sauces, salad dressings, plant milks, cereal, flavored yogurt, granola bars, and bread often have added sugars. Then, think about sweets. Do you eat candy, pastries, or dessert regularly? Add this to your total, too. There are about four grams of sugar per teaspoon. How many are you getting? Is it time to cut back?
A tip sheet for getting started
Are you ready to reduce added sugars? Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Start where you are. Don’t force yourself to change overnight. Your tastes will likely change — and this takes time. If you’re a soda drinker, it might be hard to imagine giving it up, but many people who do report over time that they lose their taste for it.
- Don’t replace sugars with artificial versions of them. Many of these products are sweeter than sugar, and contribute to your inability to enjoy the natural sweetness in many foods. Some are also linked to GI distress and even elevated blood sugars, and there is evidence that they disrupt the microbiome.
- You don’t have to eliminate everything sweet — but do make sure that your sugar intake is giving you what you want from it rather than lurking in places you don’t even recognize. Added sugar from a delectable square of chocolate is a different experience from added sugar in diet salad dressing.
- Don’t beat yourself up: it’s OK to have treats sometimes. Focus more on your daily choices for the greatest impact, and when you occasionally indulge, enjoy it.
- Look at ingredient lists and remember that they are listed in descending order based on amount. You may see sugar, but anything ending in “ose” — like fructose or glucose — is also sugar, as are honey, agave, and maple syrup. So-called natural sweeteners are still added sugar. (One possible exception to this is stevia, but see above concerns about artificial sweeteners).
- Rather than looking for a “sugar free” label (which often means sugar has been replaced with something else) look for “unsweetened”, and try to choose items with a short list of ingredients.
- Even better, buy food without labels. Fresh produce and bulk whole grains and legumes have nothing added.
Are you planning to reduce added sugars in your diet? Go for it! Pick one thing to start with. You can take the first step right away, and once you make these changes, you can keep the benefits forever.