It’s hardly news that sugar is something we should cut back on, but it gets confusing when the conversation shifts to added sugar and natural sugar. What’s the difference? How can you tell which is which?
First things first: What is added sugar?
The CDC defines added sugar as “sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared.”
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans lists some of the names used for added sugar on food labels, such as brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, and sucrose.
The Dietary Guidelines recommend keeping intake of added sugar to under 10% of total calorie intake. For someone on a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s a max of about 50 grams of added sugar, which is equivalent to about 12-13 teaspoons. To put that in perspective, a 12-ounce can of regular cola contains about 40 grams of sugar, depending on the brand.
What are natural sugars?
Sugars that are naturally present in fruit and milk are not considered added sugars. While it’s still important to make sure that we’re consuming these foods in the context of an overall balanced diet that provides adequate protein and fat to appropriately buffer the breakdown of those naturally occurring sugars.
Why is added sugar bad?
Sugar adds calories but no real nutrition to speak of. It doesn’t fill us up, so we don’t really notice those extra calories. Taking in a lot of excess calories from added sugar can contribute to weight gain or may make it more difficult to lose weight. ( http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/added-sugar/art-20045328?p=1)
Eating sugar also raises our blood sugar and insulin levels, which can mess with appetite and energy. The effect is even worse if we’re getting that sugar from a food that doesn’t have much fiber or protein (such as packaged snacks or sweets) to buffer the breakdown of that sugar.
Over time, chronically high blood sugar may lead to insulin resistance and, eventually, diabetes, so getting a handle on it sooner rather than later can help you avoid health issues in the future.
How to minimize added sugars in the diet
Avoiding obvious sources of added sugar like soda, sweets, and baked goods is one thing. What makes added sugars especially problematic is the wide range of places it hides. Sneaky sources of added sugar include: packaged cereals (even healthy-sounding ones), oatmeal, condiments, pasta sauce, frozen food, pasta, and yogurt, Remember, added sugar has many different names, and keep in mind that even naturally-derived sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are added sugars.
Read labels to educate yourself. Aim for less whenever possible. For example, aim for breakfast cereals and granola bars with less than 10 grams of sugar (5 or less would be even better). Try to keep it under 12 or 15 grams with yogurt.
Whenever possible, buy unsweetened foods. Aside from keeping your added sugar intake lower, this also allows you to control the level of sweetness. If you’re having trouble adjusting, make it a gradual process.
For example, start by mixing some unflavored yogurt into your usual flavored, and adjust the proportions over time to give your tastebuds a chance to adjust. You can also experiment by adding naturally sweet foods to unsweetened foods. Brighten up a bowl of not-sweet cereal with some fresh berries, or stir a teaspoon of your favorite jam into plain yogurt.
Again, while the sugar in juice in naturally present, it hits the bloodstream in a similar way to added sugars, so this is another thing to minimize. If you’re not ready to cut it out completely, start by diluting your juice with water or seltzer or pouring smaller glasses.
Need some guidance?
Remember, it’s all about priorities, so spend some time getting clear on what sources of sugar are worth making room for, and which ones you won’t miss. If you’re struggling with sugar cravings or need some ideas for ways to be moderate with sugar in your own life, talk to a dietitian to help you come up with a plan that works for you and your lifestyle.
Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, health coach, and writer with a passion for helping others experience a happier, calmer life and a balanced relationship with food. For those in need of some healthy-eating inspiration, Jess created five day's worth of delicious make-ahead lunches to make it even easier to eat well on a busy day. For more information on Jess, check out her website and follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.
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