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Nutrition 101: Sugar

By Annette Demeny

Welcome to the final segment of my mini-series, Nutrition 101. We have successfully covered topics including; Calories, Carbohydrates, Fats, and Salt. This week, we will sweeten things up by discovering why the building blocks of carbohydrates…SUGAR, can be the ultimate toxin if we consume too much.

 

What is Sugar?

Sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy. Consuming whole foods that contain natural sugar is okay. That’s because whole, plant-based foods also offer up beneficial amounts of fiber, essential minerals, antioxidants, and even protein. Since your body digests these type of foods slowly, the sugar in them offers a steady supply of energy to your cells. In addition, a high intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

 

Sugar becomes a toxin for the body when you consume too much added sugar. This is sugar that food manufacturers add to products to increase flavor or extend shelf life of certain goods (aka processed foods). Not only does added sugars provide zero nutritional value, they contribute to extra calories in your diet. There are four calories in one gram, so if a product has 15 grams of sugar per serving, that’s 60 calories just from the sugar alone, not counting the other ingredients.

 

In the American diet, the top sources are soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavored yogurts, cereals, cookies, cakes, candy, pastas and processed foods. But added sugar is also present in items that you may not think of as sweetened, like soups, bread, cured meats, and ketchup. The only reliable way to identify added sugars is to look at the ingredient list.  Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If you see sugar listed among the first few ingredients, the product is likely to be high in added sugars. 

 

Sugar goes by many different names, depending on its source and how it was made. It can be hard to identify added sugars, even when you read ingredient lists and food labels. One way is to check for ingredients ending in “ose” — that’s the chemical name for many types of sugar, such as fructose, glucose, maltose and dextrose. Other names for sugar include high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, corn sweetener, raw sugar, syrup, honey or fruit juice concentrates. Note: Be careful when purchasing products marketed as “Low Fat”. Often times, when fat is removed, high levels of sugar are added.

 

So, Should We Avoid All Sugar?

 

Smaller and occasional intake of sugar is not harmful. It’s the chronically high consumption typical of the Standard American Diet that we start to damage our health and raise our risk of a variety of modern diseases. Experts believe that an over consumption of sugar is a major cause of obesity, chronic inflammation, cancer, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, acne, and depression. (Read more about the link between depression and the food you eat at my blog post Food & Your Mood)

 

The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams) of added sugar per day and women, no more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons, 24 grams) per day. The current average is over 30 teaspoons of sugar per day!

~Note:  ONE 12-ounce can of soda has 10 teaspoons of added sugar!

 

Quick Fact ~ Two hundred years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. In 1970, Americans ate 123 pounds of sugar per year. Today the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar in one year. This is equal to 3 pounds (or 6 cups) of sugar consumed in one week.

 

Takeaways 
  • Don’t try to avoid everything that contains sugar, but to focus on whole foods whenever possible, and emphasize nutrient-dense sources of sugar like fruit when we do want something sweet.
  • Read labels. Sugar lives in processed foods, even foods you wouldn’t expect (like salad dressings or frozen dinners). Being aware of your sugar intake is a good idea.
  • Eat more foods without labels. (Like fruits and veggies, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, meats and seafood, etc.).
  • Add “treats” in moderation.
  • Try experimenting with lowering your sugar intake gradually (for instance, by making simple substitutions like drinking water or seltzer instead of soda), and see what happens.

 

Sources

“Added Sugar in the Diet.” Harvard School of Public Health. 2014.

“How Much Sugar Do You Eat? You May Be Surprised!” DHHS.

American Heart Association

 

 

Are you ready to take that first step in lessening your sugar intake? You can do it!!

 

 

 

 

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