Step away from the sweet stuff

Body

November GO Challenge:
Limit sugar.

Are you eating too much sugar? Ask yourself the following questions: In a restaurant, do you order soda instead of water or unsweetened tea? For a snack, do you prefer a sweet treat to a savory one? After dinner, do you feel incomplete until you’ve had dessert?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, there’s a good chance you’re overindulging your sweet tooth.

How much sugar is too much? According to the American Heart Association, women should consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams/100 calories) of added sugar per day, while men should stop at 9 teaspoons (37.5 grams). Unfortunately, most of us get between 13 to 20 sugary teaspoons per day (54.6 to 84 grams). That’s way too much.

Why is sugar so bad for you? In its natural state, it isn’t. Your body actually relies on the naturally occurring sugars found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products to function. The problem occurs when sugar is added to other foods in processing to enhance the taste, color or texture.

These “added sugars” are nothing more than empty calories, which can have negative effects on your health. Here are just some of the dangers of consuming too much added sugar.

  • Weight gain. Foods and beverages that are high in added sugar also tend to be high in calories, which can lead to weight gain. In addition, the lack of nutrients in sugar keeps you from feeling full, so it’s easy to eat too much.
  • Increased heart risk. Studies show that people who consume large amounts of added sugar are more likely to have higher blood pressure, higher levels of bad cholesterol, higher triglycerides, and an increased risk of heart attacks.
  • Greater risk of diabetes. Eating too much added sugar can lead to a condition called insulin resistance, in which various forms of sugar become “stuck” in the bloodstream (instead of getting removed and used by the cells), leading to pre-diabetes and eventually diabetes.
  • Anxiety and depression. The brain needs a steady supply of certain chemicals to function properly. But when that supply is interrupted by continuous sugar spikes, it can increase your risk for anxiety and depression.
  • Reduced brain function. Diets high in added sugar have been linked to impaired cognitive function, deficiencies in memory, and an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
  • Older looking skin. Years of eating too much added sugar can damage the collagen and elastin in your skin, leading to unsightly wrinkles and sagging.  
  • Dips in energy and mood levels. Eating a sugary treat may give you a quick energy boost as your blood sugar spikes. But once insulin is released into your cells, your blood sugar immediately drops back down, causing you to feel tired, moody, shaky and hungry again.

Painless ways to cut back on sugar.  

Women should consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day (37.5 grams for men). To put that into perspective, a can of Coke contains 39 grams of sugar. A 6 oz. container of Dannon® vanilla yogurt has 25 grams. And a chocolate peanut butter Power Bar® has 23 grams.

Ouch! What’s a sugar lover to do? Here are some tips for cutting down on the sweet stuff — without going cold turkey.

  • Take baby steps. No one expects you to give up sugar entirely. But you can get by with eating less. Start by cutting the amount of sugar you add to foods. Skip dessert a few times a week or choose fruit instead. Compare food labels and select brands that contain less added sugar. Over time, you’ll begin to retrain your taste buds and lessen your cravings.
  • Let fiber fill you up. Instead of baked goods, ice cream and candy, eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They’ll keep you feeling full and won’t cause sudden spikes and dips in your blood sugar so you’ll have more energy.
  • Pick protein. Eating high-protein foods is a good way to counteract sugar cravings. Because they digest more slowly, proteins like lean chicken, eggs, low-fat yogurt, nuts and beans can keep you satisfied longer and provide a steady source of energy.
  • Chew fennel seeds. Maybe you’ve seen them in Indian restaurants as an after-dinner treat. Fennel seeds are naturally sweet but contain no sugar. They also help reduce bloating and act as an appetite suppressant.
  • Choose healthier sweets. Instead of sprinkling sugar on your oatmeal, top it with cinnamon, nutmeg or fresh berries. Rather than ice cream, try a bowl of plain yogurt with fruit. Not filling enough? Try pairing fruit with a healthy fat, like nuts or nut butters. Think apple slices dipped in peanut butter.
  • Say no to soda. Sugary sodas account for a whopping one-third of all calories in the typical American diet. They’ve also been linked to an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. So why not drop a few pounds and lower your risk for chronic disease by switching to water, unsweetened tea, or water infused with fresh fruit?
  • Use applesauce. In baked goods, replace the sugar with unsweetened applesauce to reduce calories. One cup of sugar has over 770 calories, but a cup of applesauce has just 100 calories. Use a 1:1 ratio, but for each cup of applesauce, you’ll want to reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup.

8 bitter traps for sugar lovers.

Cutting back on sugar isn’t as easy as removing the sugar bowl from the table. Added sugar is found in all sorts of foods. And even when you think you’ve found surefire ways to avoid sugar, you may be setting yourself up for other problems. Here are some not-so-sweet pitfalls to watch out for:

  • Diet soda and sugar substitutes. Although non-nutritive sweeteners have been declared safe by the FDA, they should be used only in moderation. Research shows that artificial sweeteners may trick you into associating sweetness with a lack of calories. This false sense of freedom may, in turn, lead you to choose sweets over more nutritious foods, resulting in weight gain — and actually increasing your cravings for sugar!
  • Starches. Think you’re safe from sweets because you eat a lot of bread and pasta? Wrong. Starchy foods are actually complex carbs that your body will break down into simple sugars. If eaten without healthier foods, starches can cause your blood sugar to spike and dip just like sugar. Overly refined white bread is especially bad.
  • Dried fruits. While dried fruits are a healthy alternative to cookies, be careful not to eat too much. Once the water is removed, dried fruits end up with more sugar by volume than fresh fruits. Consider a small box of raisins. It has more than 25 grams of sugar compared to a cup of grapes (15g). Also, some dried fruits contain added sugars. Always check the label!
  • “Healthy” sugars. You may think you’re being healthy by swapping out sugar for honey or agave nectar. But sugar is sugar. Although honey and other unrefined sugars are slightly higher in nutrients, they can still make your blood sugar rise, and they all contain calories.
  • Food labels. Unfortunately, there’s no column on food labels yet for added sugar. All sugars are listed together under one heading: “Sugars.” The best way to tell which kind of sugar you’re getting is to pay attention to what you’re buying. Fruits/veggies/plain dairy products = good, naturally occurring sugars. Virtually everything else = bad added sugars.
  • Sweet surprises. Sugar can hide anywhere — even in foods that don’t seem sweet. Check the labels on pasta sauces, reduced-fat salad dressings, baked beans, ketchup, bread, coleslaw, iced tea, energy drinks, flavored yogurt, granola bars, and even high-fiber breakfast cereals.
  • Sugar aliases. Don’t just look for “sugar” in the ingredients list. Other aliases include high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, agave, malt syrup, molasses, turbinado, dextrose and all other words ending in “ose.” As a general rule, avoid items that list any type of sugar in the first few ingredients — or that list more than 4 grams of sugar per serving.