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Don't Let Excess Sugar Sneak Into Your Diet

woman reading labels on yogurt containers at the grocery store

When it comes to ingredients in our food, it’s hard to find one as stealthy as sugar.

First, it goes by many different names – dextrose, fructose, maltose are just three of many, all of which end in ‘ose’ – that aren’t always easily recognized as sugar by consumers.

Second, you’d be surprised at how much sugar so-called healthy foods have. Some yogurts have more sugar than a similar-sized portion of ice cream; if you’re eating a few handfuls of granola, you can quickly ingest more sugar than in a candy bar.

Third, if you don’t read the nutrition facts labels, you’d be shocked at the savory foods that contain sugar, such as soup, ketchup, bread, and pasta sauce. Breakfast is a big source of sugar, often in prepared cereal. Furthermore, one serving of an entrée like sweet and sour chicken for lunch or dinner might have more than double the maximum added sugar we should eat in one day, all in one portion.

It’s one thing to eat dessert, or a sweet coffee drink, and know that you’ve chosen a sugary treat. It’s another when you have no idea your main entrée is loaded with it.

Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar

Not all sugar is bad. All carbohydrates break down into what we call sugar, and our bodies need these to function properly. Sugar occurs naturally in fruit, as fructose, and in milk, as lactose. And of course, refined carbohydrates are also quickly converted to sugar in our bodies.

Now, though, it’s required on updated nutrition facts labels that packaged foods state the grams of added sugar in one serving – and that’s the sugar you want to be wary of.

Why? Because the average person in this country eats nearly 72 grams  of sugar a day, according to a study by the University of California, San Francisco. That translates to about 57 pounds of sugar per person each year.

Our bodies were not made to handle these huge amounts of sugar. Back in hunter-gatherer days, the main source of sugar was fruit, and that was rare to find, and seasonal. So when fruit was available, people ate a lot of it. But it would probably be a long time before the next time they’d find fruit.

Today, sugar – often in the cheap form of high fructose corn syrup – is essentially mainlined. The effects on our bodies include obesity, diabetes and other illnesses that are fueled by inflammation.

And yes, while excess sugar fuels obesity for many people, being thin or of average weight doesn’t automatically mean you aren’t taking in more sugar than is good for you.

Also, eating sugar usually makes you want to eat more sugar.

Cutting Back on Sugar

Cutting back on sugar allows you to enjoy sweeter foods if you do eat them. In fact, if you start reducing, or eventually cutting out, added sugar in your diet you will actually lose your taste or craving for it, because the taste buds actually turn over every 10 days. If you then eat something you used to eat or drink, like a soft drink, you will likely find it overly sweet, almost unpalatable.

You don’t need to avoid the naturally occurring sugar in whole fruit. When you eat a piece of fruit, you are also ingesting fiber and other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, not just sugar, so the effect of sugar on your body is different than added sugars alone.

But when you drink fruit juice – even 100 percent pure fruit juice – the sugar is maximized. You can easily drink 30 grams of sugar in a glass of orange juice. It will give you a quick spike in energy, and then you’ll feel a bit of a crash.

Many people are also completely unaware of how much sugar there is in energy drinks and sports replenishment drinks. Unless you are sweating for more than an hour straight, you’d be much better off drinking water.

If you buy tea in a bottle, be sure to look for an unsweetened variety. If it’s not, you may easily take in more than 40 grams of sugar. And you won’t even know it, or savor it.

Get Into the Label-Reading Habit

It doesn’t have to be hard to start cutting back. First, read every label and notice where sugar is an unexpected ingredient – say, tomato sauce or mayonnaise – and opt for a brand that has none, or very little. Or switch things up, by adding berries to plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt, instead of buying sweetened, flavored yogurt.

The recommendation is that women should have limit themselves to 24 grams of added sugar a day, a little more if they are super active; men about 30 grams or so.  If you like something sweet after a meal, save up your added sugar grams for that, and enjoy it.

Of course, another option is to eat mainly whole, unprocessed foods. No need to read any packaging at all!

The Blue Zones

Here’s something I always find inspiring: how people live in the Blue Zones, which are the parts of the world where people have the longest, healthiest lives, as identified by author Dan Buettner. They include a mountain village in Sardinia, an island in Okinawa, Ikaria in Greece, Costa Rica’s Nicola Peninsula, and areas around Loma Linda, California.

The people living in these places have certain things in common; their diets are 95 percent whole, plant-based food. They avoid added sugar, processed foods and flour. They do eat lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and whole grains, because those are available where they live. They mostly replace meat with beans, making beans their main protein and adding fresh herbs and spices. They finish dishes with olive oil, and may enjoy red wine with their meals. (You can read “The Blue Zone Cookbook” for more details.)

They also get up and move every 20 minutes, and usually walk to wherever they are going. They socialize and have a strong sense of purpose within their community. They get plenty of sleep and do things to reduce stress.

So start by reading labels to keep track of how much added sugar you are eating in one day, and where it’s sneaking in. Then you might want to make some different choices that taste just as good, or better – and definitely are better for your body and health.

Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD, is Chief Clinical Transformation and Quality Officer at University Hospitals.

Related Links

The best time to find a primary care doctor? Before you actually need one. It’s never too early to start preventive care. Long-term patient-doctor relationships help create long-term health. Learn more about primary care at University Hospitals and find a provider who suits your healthcare needs and those of your loved ones. Also, learn more about where to go, based on your illness, injury or condition.