With such a focus on eating a low-fat diet, some Americans think that any food that is low in fat is a healthier option. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Soda and hard candy, for example, have no fat but they also have no vitamins, minerals, fiber, or other healthy ingredients. What they do have is sugar, and lots of it! A lot of sugar adds up to a lot of calories, as well as potential health issues.
The downside of food that is high in sugar and calories is that they lead to weight gain. In turn, being overweight increases your risk of developing or complicating chronic conditions, like:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Joint problems
- Type 2 diabetes
Consuming too much sugar not only increases your odds of having health problems but, because sugary foods often take the place of healthy foods, the body is deprived of essential nutrients. Choosing soda over a glass of skim milk, or snacking on gummy bears instead of on an apple, may seem like a harmless decision. Over time, though, these "empty calories" result in a body starved for the nourishment it needs to function properly.
Types of sugars
The good news is that not all sugars are inherently bad. There are 2 types of sugars:1
- Natural sugars are those that are naturally part of foods, including:
- Fructose--found in fruits
- Lactose--found in milk
- Added sugars are any kind of sweetener that is added to a food, including:
- White sugar
- Brown sugar
- High fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin
A limited amount of added sugar is fine as to enhance the taste of healthy foods, such as adding a bit of sugar to coffee, whole-grain cereal, or low-fat yogurt. On the other hand, most added sugars in the American diet are found in highly-processed foods like soft drinks, cookies, ice cream, and ready-made breakfast items. Even products like spaghetti sauce, salad dressings, and crackers can have several tablespoons of added sugar.
To spot added sugars on a product's nutritional label, look for:
- Brown sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt sugar
- Raw sugar
- Sugar molecules ending in "ose" (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose)
What about low or sugar-free foods?
Nutrition labels also may include phrases like "Sugar-Free", "No Added Sugars", or "Low Sugar", but what do they really mean?
- Sugar-Free - less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving
- Reduced Sugar or Less Sugar - at least 25 percent less sugars per serving compared to a standard serving size of the traditional variety
- No Added Sugars or Without Added Sugars - no sugars or sugar-containing ingredients such as juice or dry fruit is added during processing
- Low Sugar - not defined or allowed as a claim on food labels
How much sugar is too much?
While sugar is not harmful to the body, it is not necessary for it to function properly. Sugar adds calories to food, but provides no nutritional value. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)2 does not have a recommended Daily Value (DV) for the amount of sugar we should eat each day. Over the past few decades, Americans have consumed more and more foods with added sugar, resulting in many people being overweight or obese. While there is no recommended DV, the American Heart Association does offer general sugar intake guidelines for men and women:
Sugar limits by gender
According to the American Heart Association the daily added sugar limit for men should be no more than 150 calories, which equates to about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams. The daily added sugar limit for women is 100 calories, which would be about 6 teaspoons or 25 grams.
In addition, all food packaging has a Nutrition Facts label, which is full of useful information to help you eat more healthfully. The amount of sugar is listed on the Nutrition Facts label, which now clearly indicates how much of the sugar content is from added sugars. There are 4 calories in every 1 gram of sugar, so you can easily calculate how many calories come from sugar in a certain food. Simply multiply the grams of sugar listed on the Nutrition Food Label by 4. For example, a product containing 15 grams of sugar has 60 calories from sugar per serving (15 x 4 = 60).
Tips to minimize your sugar intake
To help limit your sugar consumption, especially sugars that are added to foods during the manufacturing process:
- Do Not Be Fooled by Low-Fat Sweets
Often, when food manufacturers remove fat from cookies, crackers, cakes, and other snack foods, they add sugar to make up for the flavor lost with the fat. The result is that many low-fat snacks provide the same amount of calories--or more--as the original product. So, a low-fat banner on the package does not give you free reign to eat too many. It is still important to pay attention to calories and the amount of sugar listed on the label.
Instead of the sugary cereal you have eaten since you were a kid, make a bowl of oatmeal and top it with some brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup.
- Mix ¼ cup of a sugary cereal with ¾ cup of a less sugary cereal. Check the Nutrition Facts label for the sugar content.
- Snack on a bowl of applesauce. If it is not sweet enough, add raisins or brown sugar.
- Fresh and dried fruits are sweet and can give you the sugar fix you may crave in the afternoon or after dinner. Before heading for the candy bowl, try a piece of fruit first.
- Dark chocolate (made with 70% cocoa or more) has less sugar and can be rich and satisfying in small amounts.
Find Other Ways to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
Sometimes a little bit of sugar goes a long way. Try some of these tactics:
- Choose Diet Versions
If you just love the taste of soda and cannot imagine having popcorn or pizza with anything else, try a diet version. Or, if it is the bubbles you crave, have a glass of a zero calorie beverage like:
- Seltzer water (some are flavored)
- Club soda (add a splash of fruit juice for flavor)
As with most things in life, moderation is key. If you fill your diet with natural, healthy foods your sugar consumption likely will remain at acceptable levels. Fill your diet with pre-packaged snacks, dinners, and desserts, and you are at risk of having some serious health problems. As far as sugar is concerned, it turns out that you really can have too much of a good thing.