I must tell you, I’m completely confused — is sugar bad for you or not?
For starters, we are biologically programmed to like sweet things. This innate preference actually protected our ancestors from eating poisonous foods, which tend to be sour. Sugars, starches, and fiber are all members of the nutrient category called carbohydrates and are your body’s main source of fuel. (The WHO recommends that between 55 and 75 percent of daily intake come from carbohydrates.) All carbohydrates (fruit, vegetables, starches, milk, and yogurt) contain some natural sugar. For example, milk contains lactose, fruits and vegetables contain fructose and glucose, and grains contain chains of glucose linked together.
The body digests carbohydrates to simple sugars, which are recognized by the body as an energy source. “Sugars can be part of a healthful diet, in moderation. In fact, naturally occurring or added sugars can make nutritious foods more appealing by adding taste, aroma, texture and color,” says Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Penn State University and author of The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan (Harper Mass Market Paperbacks, 2002).
So, why should you reduce sugar in your diet? Do we become fat from eating sugar? Does it cause diabetes? Cavities? Does eating a lot of sugar make you look older (the Perricone Prescription)? Can you become addicted to sugar? Although some would argue that answering the preceding questions with an unequivocal “yes” would be perpetuating a myth — many of these presumptions do hold true. Yet, that’s not what experts find most disconcerting.
The type of sugar that experts take issue with is “added” or “free” sugar — the sugar that manufacturers put in our foods to improve the taste. But researchers are quick to point out that this sugar is no worse than natural sugars. “Once in your body, there is absolutely no difference — the body can’t tell if you have eaten table sugar or sugar from a fruit. It all gets converted to glucose,” says Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., director of nutrition studies at Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention. However, some research suggests that high fructose corn syrup (most often used by food manufacturers to create a sweet taste), is stored more easily as fat than sucrose, and that it may be less filling.
“If people think that it really matters what type of sugar they’re consuming, well — they’re missing the point. It’s not the source of sugar that matters; it’s what they’re NOT consuming that’s important. If they’re eating foods with added sugar (i.e., candy, cookies, cakes, chips, soda, etc.) — the healthier foods are being knocked out,” says Dr. Gardner. Intake of critical nutrients is significantly reduced when a person’s diet is high in added sugar. This puts the individual at higher risk for cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, and other conditions. Worse yet, experts argue that you can’t just take a vitamin to make up for what you’re missing. “Foods such as fruits and vegetables have benefits that we are just beginning to learn about that can’t be replaced by a pill,” adds Dr. Gardner.
It’s actually surprising to see all the foods that have added sugar. Take a look at the food label on ketchup, applesauce, soups, cereals, baby food, salad dressing, or whole wheat bread — even that Slim-Fast shake that’s supposed to help you lose weight has almost 9 teaspoons of sugar — who knows how much of that has been added during processing.
Unfortunately, the food label only lists the total sugar content in a product. It doesn’t provide you with the information as to how much, if any, sugar that has been added to the foods you eat — so you have to be a bit of a detective.
Here are some basics for minimizing your sugar intake:
HOW MUCH ADDED SUGAR?
First, you need to be able to determine what “10 teaspoons of sugar” or “10 percent added sugar” means. A teaspoon contains about 4 grams of sugar, so 10 teaspoons would put your upper limit at about 40 grams per day. Since a gram of sugar has about 4 calories, this means you are aiming to keep your total calories from added sugar at no more than 160 calories. Using the WHO’s recommendation, your added sugar limit would be 50 grams for a 2000 calorie diet or about 12 teaspoons.
CHECK THE INGREDIENT LIST
Food labels list ingredients by descending order of weight. If sugar is one of the first few ingredients listed, this may be a product you want to limit or avoid. Additionally, be on the lookout for sugar’s many aliases: sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, confectioner’s sugar, corn sweeteners, dextrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, molasses, honey, brown sugar, fruit and juice concentrate, invert sugar, cane sugar, raw sugar, galactose, lactose, levulose, and maple sugar.
LIQUID CANDY Cut back on sugary soda intake. It provides no nutritional value, and just having 2 sodas per day could add 30 pounds to your weight in a year. Even 100 percent juice is another high calorie beverage to limit. One cup of juice contains the natural sugar of several pieces of fruit without the fiber or the “fullness factor” of consuming an actual piece of fruit.
SWEET AND FAT FREE
Carefully read labels of low-fat and fat-free foods. Many fat-free foods such as fat-free cookies use sugar to enhance the taste and texture of the product once the fat has been removed. Even seemingly healthful foods like yogurt can also be high in sugar. For example, Stonyfield Farm Nonfat Strawberry Yogurt may be fat free, but it has 31 grams of sugar for a 6-ounce serving.
Choose mostly nutrient-dense foods that provide other nutrients besides sugar or fat. Eat foods that have been minimally processed, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy, and heart-healthy fats. Try to make sure that sugar is not high on the ingredients list for packaged foods.
SUGAR FREE OR NO ADDED SUGAR
Try foods that are sugar free, as long as you’re monitoring the fat content. Also, look for “No Added Sugar” and “Without Added Sugar” claims. A food is allowed to boast this on the label if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient (for example, fruit juices, applesauce, or dried fruit) is added during processing or packing. Pay attention, though, because it can be stated on the package even if the food is not “low calorie” or “reduced calorie.”