Could sugar be the next saturated fat or tobacco?
Consider this: New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine set out to examine the past 50 years of studies on the effect that sugar has on overall health. It concluded that not only can sugar contribute to heart disease just like saturated fat, but that the sugar industry successfully lobbied to hide this from the public.
Talk about a major revelation!
So it stands to reason that we should limit our sugar intake. But sugar is everywhere. And it can be hard to resist those sweet treats, whether you're in search of an afternoon pick-me-up or celebratory indulgence. Even if you're passing on dessert or a soda, sugar is hidden in foods you may not expect, from bread to salad dressings.
It's not the naturally occurring sugars in whole foods (like fruit and milk) that you should avoid but the ones processed into foods or the sugar you add yourself (like into your morning cup of coffee).
How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
"We're all eating too much sugar," says Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy at the University of California at San Francisco's School of Medicine. "Kids especially are consuming disproportionately more than adults."
Schmidt says this overconsumption of sugar is a major health concern, and that Americans need to collectively cut way back. But over the past few decades, Americans have only increased their sugar intake.
For an average 2,000-calorie diet, that works out to 200 calories tops. You can reach that pretty quickly, considering a 12 oz can of soda has around 130 calories, or eight teaspoons, of sugar.
The American Heart Association is even stricter, recommending a max of six teaspoons of added sugar a day for women (about 100 calories) and nine teaspoons for men (about 150 calories).
"Some studies show [sugar is] more addictive than cocaine. We are prisoners to [it]."
—Sarah Wilson, author of "I Quit Sugar"
Do We Have a Sugar Addiction?
Sugar not only packs on the calories without offering nutrients, but too much of it can be harmful. A high-sugar diet has been linked to an increased risk of health concerns like tooth decay, obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
"Leaving aside the very serious health issues... the real problem is its addictiveness," says Sarah Wilson, an author, entrepreneur and founder of IQuitSugar.com. "Some studies show it's more addictive than cocaine. We are prisoners to sugar, in part because we lack the hormone to tell us when we're eating it... so we keep eating it and eating it."
But don't let this discourage you from reducing your sugar intake. Whether you ease into it or go cold turkey, you can cut back. Here are five easy ways to get started.
1. Meal Prep Like a Pro
"The best way to reduce or cut sugar from your diet is to get yourself into the kitchen and prepare your own food," says Diane Sanfilippo, a certified nutrition consultant and author of Practical Paleo.
But you don't have to cook it all from scratch, she says. Start with a few clean ingredients (always read the labels for added sugars or preservatives) like a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, some pre-cut vegetables and sweet potatoes to put together meals to bring to work.
Or try some of these other great ideas:
- Cook some hard-boiled eggs for grab-and-go breakfasts or snacks.
- Pass on pre-sweetened foods like flavored yogurts and eat the plain version with fresh fruit instead.
- For extra flavor, experiment with spices and extracts instead of using sugar.
The key is to choose whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole gains and fish, whenever possible when preparing meals instead of the processed or pre-prepared stuff. These foods are higher in nutrients and will make the most of your calories, as well as minimize the added sugars you're eating.
Having these less sugary options on hand can also help you deal with sugar cravings. "The hardest part about reducing or cutting sugar from your diet will be the urges and cravings that are bound to hit within the first week to 10 days," says Sanfilippo. "Have food prepared and ready to go to eat, and you're way ahead of the game."
2. Kick Your Soda Habit
It's no secret that the main source of added sugars in the American diet is from soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages like sports and energy drinks and fruit juices.
"Sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages make up 36 percent of our added sugar intake," says Schmidt. "If we can get Americans to stop their consumption of sugary beverages, they'd be pretty close to dietary recommendations for sugar. These beverages have little to no nutritional value and there's some evidence that they leave you still hungry."
She says that while there's been a decline in sugary beverage consumption, people still drink too much of it. On any given day, half of the people in the U.S. consume sugary drinks — 25 percent consume at least 200 calories from these drinks and 5 percent drink at least 567 calories.
Instead, Schmidt recommends drinking unsweetened soda water with fresh fruit, cucumbers or something else with flavor. If you're craving something sweeter, start with half 100-percent fruit juice and half soda water and gradually decrease the amount of juice over time and up the amount of water until you're just using the juice to spike the water. You can do the same with soda if you're finding it really hard to kick the habit.
3. Shop Strategically
Another strategy is to start buying products with less added sugar. A 2012 study found that a whopping 75 percent of packaged foods in the supermarket had sugar added, in everything from cakes and cookies to granola bars and yogurt.
But finding out just how much added sugar is in a product isn't always easy. Currently the “sugars” line on a product's nutrition facts panel only lists total sugars, which can include both added sugar and the naturally occurring kind.
"Examine not just the nutrition facts panel to assess how many grams of sugar, but read the ingredient list for words aligned with sugar too," says Allison Stowell, a registered dietitian for the Guiding Stars Licensing Company.
There are tons of different names for sugar, though. Here are a few to watch out for:
ending in “ose,” such as dextrose and sucrose
- High fructose corn syrup
- Brown sugar
- Fruit juice concentrates
- Maple syrup
Ingredients are listed in order of how much is in the product, so if sugar's near the top or several sugars appear on the label, that's a red flag.
The good news is the Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this year that the new nutrition facts label will list “added sugars." Most food manufacturers will be required to use the new label by 2018.
4. Eliminate Temptation
Help yourself as you're trying to cut back on the sweet stuff by removing sugary temptations from sight. "The number one thing is to get those sugary foods out of your environment; get it out of your home," says Schmidt.
That means clearing your cupboards and pantry of these foods and trying not to buy any more of them. The harder it is to access those junky foods if a craving hits, the less likely you are to eat them.
Instead, Schmidt recommends making an event of eating sugary foods, rather than it being the norm. Craving ice cream? Go to the ice cream shop instead of keeping a gallon in your freezer. That way, you're less likely to go back for seconds (or thirds).
The same goes at work. Do you reach for a soda when you hit an afternoon lull? Make sure there aren't any in the work fridge and have another healthier beverage around instead. You can also use the opportunity to help reduce your friend's and co-workers' sugar intake, too (just be sure not to become the bossy sugar police).
"Office birthdays, dinner out with friends and weekend parties are all breeding grounds for the pressures that come when food is around," says Sanfilippo. "We should be creating more environments where we celebrate and enjoy social time together around healthy foods."
5. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
As you start minimizing sugar, you may be tempted to swap in more artificial sweeteners, like those found in diet soda and sugar-free candy. It's true that these sweeteners can help ease the process, and the American Heart Association says you can try them in moderation, but some caution against their use as a sugar-cutting strategy.
"While we believe artificial sweeteners to be safe, and they do benefit individuals who are cutting back on sugar to reduce their calorie intake, I don't recommend using them to wean off sugar because they perpetuate the craving for sweet that these individuals are trying to overcome," says Stowell.
Schmidt also warns that these sweeteners could have similar detrimental effects as sugar. "There's growing evidence that the three main sweeteners (saccharin, surculose and aspartame) are linked to weight gain and glucose intolerance, which is related to a rise in insulin and type 2 diabetes," she says.
Instead, ease into cutting back your sugar intake. If you currently use two packets of sugar in your coffee, for instance, scale back over a few weeks to 1.5, then one, and then nothing.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you know how much sugar you consume on a daily basis? Is it over or under the recommended guidelines? Have you ever tried to cut back on your sugar intake? What did you do? Did you try any of the above steps? What else did you do? Share your stories and suggestions in the comments section below!