5 Easy ways to avoid added sugar

sugar bagComing soon to a food label near you: “Added sugars”

The nutrition community is in a state of alarm about added sugar.  High intake of added sugars is linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease.  Some health professionals take the argument further, stridently blaming all foods with any sugar of causing every chronic disease known to man.  There’s a proposal to include “added sugars” on food labels, and to set limits on daily intake of added sugars.  Consumers have already responded to the negative publicity, as intake of added sugars has declined recently.

According to food intake data, most of our added sugar comes from sugar-sweetened beverages.  Teenaged boys have the highest intake of added sugars, at 442 per day.  That’s over 1/2 cup of sugar per day, everyday.  That’s 116 grams of sugar.  Compare that to the American Heart Association recommendation that adult males consume no more than 38 grams of added sugar per day.

Is the paranoia justified?

One problem with blaming added sugar for health problems is the effect a high sugar intake has on diet balance.  If your diet is loaded with sugar, then it’s not loaded with something else: vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, fresh fruit, protein foods, etc.  So a high sugar diet is by definition an unbalanced and unhealthy diet.  Some studies have found that certain groups of people have diets that are 25% added sugar!  Think about that.  If you are eating a 2000 calorie diet, then 500 of those calories are pure sugar (about 3 cans of soda pop).  That crowds out healthy food.  Not to mention, people who load up on sugary foods aren’t likely to be people who load up on vegetables and whole grains for the rest of their meals.  They’re likely eating snack foods and pizza.

Another problem with blaming just the sugar: added sugars can easily contribute to excess calorie intake.  It’s very easy to over-consume calories in the form of soft drinks or sugary desserts.  And extra calories lead to obesity.  But then, extra calories from any source lead to obesity, which itself is tied to higher risks for all chronic diseases.   So it is the obesity or is it the sugar?

I met recently with a group of colleagues and after reading lots of recent research and commentary, we weren’t convinced one way or the other.  But we did agree that avoiding excess added sugar is a good idea.  There’s no upside to eating a lot of sugar.

Easy ways to avoid excess added sugar

Whether sugar causes diseases or causes obesity which causes diseases, avoiding added sugar is not a bad idea.  It’s empty calories.  But as many of my colleagues note, people can be very mixed up about how to limit added sugar.  It’s not helpful to obsess about the tiny amounts of added sugar in bread or ketchup, but then go out and order a giant piece of cheesecake or triple scoop ice cream cone for dessert after a big dinner.

If you want to avoided added sugar in a meaningful way, here are some easy steps you can take:

  1. Do Not Drink Sugary Soft Drinks.  That includes soda pop, sports drinks, fruit-flavored juice drinks and sugary coffee or tea drinks.  And “organic” soft drinks are still added sugar.  Agave and honey are added sugar.  Cutting out soft drinks is probably the most meaningful way to cut back on sugar.
  2. Ditch the daily candy or dessert habit.  There is no reason to eat sugary desserts every day after a meal.  And definitely do not teach children to expect a sugary dessert everyday.  If your co-workers are in the habit of leaving out candy bowls or boxes of donuts, avoid them like the plague.
  3. Don’t add sugar to foods.  Why spoil nice fresh fruit with a dose of sugar?  Or your morning coffee or tea?
  4. Avoid sugary cereals and sugary breakfast or snack bars.
  5. Keep sugary treats out of your home so they don’t tempt you.  If that doesn’t work, keep them out of sight, and never eat them straight out of the package, which easily leads to over-eating.

Those types of strategies are meaningful.  Worrying about ketchup or bread is less meaningful, but if you want to be very strict about avoiding added sugar, you might go that route.  If the “Added Sugars” listing is approved for food labels, you will eventually have a tool to help you decide which foods to choose.*  Meanwhile, check ingredients’ lists for all types of added sugars: sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave, maple syrup, sugar cane syrup or extract and maltose.

*A recent study looked at consumers’ understanding of the “Added Sugars” food label. Results were disheartening. Many of the consumers were confused about exactly what the term referred to.  So simply adding that to food labels might not reduce added sugar intake.

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