Sugar is such a controversial topic not just between fellow dietitians but also within the general public.
You have the individuals who debate “sugar is sugar, whether it comes from a starchy vegetable or a piece of cake”, the individuals who say “sugar is fine in moderation”, and lastly you have the individuals who refute with “sugar is bad, our bodies need to be in ketosis and we can’t get there if we eat sugar”…
Yes, I know these illustrations are pretty dramatic, but I hear these things on a daily basis. Hopefully after reading my take on added sugars, you’ll have a better understanding of why our diets should not exceed the daily recommendations of added sugars.
What does sugar do to the body?
The obvious answer is that the more sugar you consume, the greater the risk you may develop type II diabetes (or insulin resistance), obesity (primarily an increase in visceral fat), cancer (due to increased inflammation) and elevated triglycerides (which increase the risk of heart attack and stroke).
For general health and wellbeing, in short, added sugar provides simple carbohydrates and calories, but no nutritional benefits. Our bodies do not need added sugars to survive because there is an abundance of plants available that can provide us with complex carbohydrates and fiber we need for metabolism and digestion.
What are added sugars?
Essentially, added sugars are syrups or sweeteners that are added to a food item during production or preparation. These do not include the sugars naturally occurring in fruits and dairy products.
Luckily, the American Heart Association (AHA, http://www.heart.org, 2019) has come up with a liberal limit recommendation to help control our sugar consumption. For men, it is recommended that you not exceed 36 grams of added sugar daily (an equivalence of 9 teaspoons). Women, on the other hand, are advised to not exceed 25 grams of added sugar daily (an equivalence to 6 teaspoons).
What are sources of added sugars?
Here is a list of popular added sugars found on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website:
- anhydrous dextrose
- brown sugar
- confectioner’s powdered sugar
- corn syrup
- corn syrup solids
- high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
- maple syrup
- nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar)
- pancake syrup
- raw sugar
- white granulated sugar
According to the USDA (Choose MyPlate, 2019), the most popular food items that contain added sugars include (but are not limited to):
- regular soft drinks, energy drinks, and sports drinks
- pies and cobblers
- sweet rolls, pastries, and donuts
- fruit drinks (fruit punch)
- dairy desserts, such as ice cream
Those items may seem like a no-brainer for you…but what about other items that are “deemed” healthy but contain copious amounts of sugar?
Here are some packaged foods that contain hidden sugars:
- pasta/pizza sauces
- condiments such as BBQ sauce, ketchup, teriyaki sauce, etc
- granola/granola bars
- cereal (even the “healthy” cereals)
- flavored oatmeal
- flavored yogurt
- nut/soy milks
- canned foods
- frozen foods
I call these “hidden sugars” because oftentimes we associate these food items as being “healthy” and do not check the food label. Yogurt (specifically Greek yogurt) is a great source of protein and I encourage many of my clients to choose this for snacks, however, many of the flavored yogurts are packing 15+ grams of added sugar in one serving…that is over half of the recommendation for both men and women!
Choosing the plain yogurts are a smarter option because you can top with fresh fruit to obtain naturally occurring sugars and plenty of fiber to aid in digestion and help you feel satisfied.
Reading the nutrition label for added sugars:
Luckily, most nutrition labels specifically state “added sugars” underneath carbohydrates on the food label, so it is easy for us to determine whether or not that is a smart option for our bodies.
As you can see in the protein bar above, there are 15 total grams of sugar, but of those sugars, 0 grams are added sugars…this means that all of the sugar in this protein bar is found naturally within the ingredients.
The controversy many registered dietitians, health professionals, and health promoters alike run into is “banning” sugar and calling sugar “bad”. You have some professionals who say to honor your sugar cravings and don’t eliminate foods from you diet…you have other professionals who understand how detrimental sugar is for the body and tell you not to ever eat it…so what is the answer?
In my professional and personal opinion, I think it is clear through research that added sugars should definitely be limited or not consumed at all…however, part of life is enjoying the simple things like cake on your birthday or monthly ice cream dates with your spouse.
Over the past year, I have really focused on choosing more whole, plant based food items, ultimately cutting wayyyy down on my added sugar intake. I am also very strict when buying products and choose items that contain less than 5 grams of added sugars per serving (or none at all). Since I have been more conscious of that, my body feels better, my clothes fit better, and my mind is clearer.
I wish I could say “eat sugar in moderation”, but the problem with that is my moderation may look different than someone else’s moderation…to me, moderation is special occasions, holidays, anniversaries, once a month, sparingly…but to others, moderation may mean once a day…we do not need to be eating cake and m&m’s every day.
My advice to you is to truly choose to eat plant based, whole foods as your primary source of nutrition and on occasion, it is totally fine to indulge in a cookie or piece of cheesecake. There are plenty of ways to naturally sweeten your food and not feel deprived—>but that is a topic for another day 🙂
Until Next Time,
Katrina Detter, RD, LDN
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