Not So Sweet: Getting smart about sugar

Not So Sweet: Getting smart about sugar

Most of us are guilty of indulging in sugary foods and beverages over the holiday season. But with the new year, now is the time to get on track with your sugar intake. Knowing where to spot sugar is the first step.

“The first thing that everybody needs to figure out is where the sugar is in their diet,” says Lisa Neff, MD, an endocrinologist at the Center for Lifestyle Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Some sources of sugar are more obvious (think cookies, cake and ice cream), but others are well hidden.

The biggest sugar culprits are sweetened beverages, sweets and snack foods, according to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Almost half of an individual’s added sugar calories come from regular soda, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea drinks, and sports and energy drinks. About one-third come from sugar-laden snack foods and sweets.

“I recommend that people replace regular soda with water, unsweetened coffee or tea, or an occasional diet soda,” Neff says.

And you can ditch the sports drinks. Hydration is key during and after exercise, but water is enough. “Unless you are an extreme athlete like a marathon runner who needs hydration plus electrolytes, your body doesn’t need sports or energy drinks,” Neff explains.

Sugar and your health

Not all sugar is bad for you; however, the average American consumes too much of it.

“Sugary foods replace the nutrient-dense foods you could be eating,” explains Sara Haas, RDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian nutritionist, chef and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You are getting calories, but no nutritional benefit.”

Over time, a sugar-filled diet can lead to health issues, Neff says. “Although sugar does not cause diabetes, it increases insulin-release in the body. Insulin leads to fat storage, which can cause weight gain as well as pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases like heart disease,” she says.

Sugar can be naturally occurring in some foods such as fruits, 100 percent fruit juice and plain cow’s milk. Sugar is also added to foods to make them taste sweet, last longer and improve texture, body and color. There’s a new emphasis on identifying added sugars in foods, as foods with a lot of added sugars give you extra calories with little nutritional value.

The best way to understand what you are eating is by reading the fine print on food labels. The Food and Drug Administration is requiring a new Nutrition Facts label by July 2018 that will specify the amount of added sugars in a food.

Keep in mind, there are four grams of sugar in just one teaspoon of granulated sugar. Therefore, if a serving of your breakfast cereal contains 16 grams of sugar, that’s four teaspoons of sugar. If you eat two servings, that’s double the amount of sugar and calories.

A good rule of thumb is to stick with less than 10 grams of added sugar per serving in a food product. Aim for less than 10 percent of your daily calories to come from added sugar. That’s 200 calories or less for a 2,000 calorie diet.

Creative ways to sweeten foods without sugar

Cutting back on sugar takes creativity in the kitchen. “I love using spices like cinnamon and nutmeg,” Haas says. “They have a naturally sweet flavor profile and are perfect for sprinkling on oatmeal, cereal or yogurt.” Also, a touch of pure vanilla, almond or peppermint extract goes a long way toward adding sweetness and flavor to coffee, milk, hot cereal and baked goods.

Fruit, with its natural sugar, is also a great way to sweeten while still getting fiber, vitamins and minerals. “Finely chopping fruits helps distribute the flavor, making sure every bite is sweet,” Haas says. And don’t forget about roasting veggies. Squash, eggplant, asparagus and other vegetables naturally caramelize in the oven and pick up a perfect touch of sweetness—sans any added sugar.

Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN, is a lifestyle nutrition expert and author of Total Body Diet for Dummies. Follow her @vsrnutrition.

By July 2018, the FDA is requiring that food labels specify the total amount of sugar in a serving, as well as the amount of added sugars in a serving.

Originally published January 24, 2017