(Article first published on The Candidly.)
We are a culture addicted to sugar. On average, we consume 17 teaspoons of added sugar on a daily basis. That equals 68 grams of sugar or two 12-ounce cans of soda.
But let’s be clear about one thing; sugar, specifically added sugar, is poison.
This is not fear-mongering. This is not a trend. This is not something that we’ll realize 10 years from now that we were wrong about. Sugar is killing us in myriad ways, and the sooner we change our habits, particularly for our kids, the better.
Sugar can contribute to long-term health issues.
Sugar packs a lot of calories, mostly empty ones, that the body cannot burn off at the rate that it is consumed. And the trouble with the empty calories of sugar is that no matter how many you take in, you never feel full, which almost always leads to overeating; and what the body can’t use by converting to energy gets stored as fat. Brooke Alpert, a registered dietician, agrees, explaining, “what we’ve discovered in the last couple of years is that sugar is keeping us overweight. It’s also a leading cause of heart disease; it negatively affects the skin, and it leads to premature aging.”
Sugar also disrupts a hormone called leptin, which is responsible for regulating hunger. Leptin can inhibit appetite and reduce overall body weight, but eating sugar can lead to leptin resistance, which can increase our appetites and lead to overeating.
EATING SUGAR CAN LEAD TO LEPTIN RESISTANCE, WHICH CAN INCREASE OUR APPETITES AND LEAD TO OVEREATING.
And even when we think we’re making healthy choices, sugar and its empty calories can sneak up on us. In fact, studies have shown that foods labeled “low-fat,” “non-fat,” or “lower calorie” actually have higher sugar content than their regular counterparts. While these differences may seem small, taken together, they add up to a lifetime of empty, sugar-driven calories that we consumed when we thought we were eating something healthy.
A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found a correlation between a high-sugar diet and a greater risk of heart disease-related death. The study took place over 15 years and discovered that people who got 17-21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from heart disease than the participants who consumed just 8% of their calories as added sugar.
From there, the list of health threats just continue:
Yes. All of that.
Sugar is hiding everywhere.
Alpert believes most people are eating way more sugar than they intend. “People don’t realize that seemingly healthy foods are loaded with sugar — and so we’re basically eating sugar all day long, from morning till night,” Alpert said. The best way to know if and how much sugar is in food is to read the ingredients and the nutritional info. Yes, it’s a huge pain in the ass. The ingredients are listed in order of quantity from most to least, and typically the first four ingredients are the major ones. So if you see that sugar is in the top four, be concerned. And, spoiler alert, sugar is almost always in the top four.
Let’s look at all the places sugar lurks and its many, sneaky aliases.
In the digestive system, sugar breaks down to glucose. Remember that suffix, “–ose,” because it is used in sugar’s many other names, such as:
If “fructose” sounds familiar, it’s probably because high-fructose corn syrup is one of the most ubiquitous added sugar in processed foods. Though there’s been debate over how much high-fructose corn syrup has contributed to health problems, it’s been virtually proven that, like any other added sugar, high fructose corn syrup is terrible for you.
Sugar comes in other forms as well. Check for the following ingredients in the products you buy most:
Unfortunately, these added sugars are often found in some of the most common items on your grocery list.
The beverages your family drinks are a major culprit of excess sugar. There’s tons of added sugar in soda, juice cocktails, and punches. It’s also in energy drinks, coffee drinks, sports drinks like Gatorade, and sweetened teas like Snapple.
Yes, you probably already knew that sugary sodas are bad. But did you know that fruit juice is also extremely high in sugar? Eating a whole fruit itself is fine — the fiber in the fruit mitigates the effects of the natural sugar. But drinking fruit juice is like sugar straight to the veins. There’s no fiber to slow down the metabolizing process.
Even seemingly good-for-you health foods like granola bars, yogurt, almond milk, and packaged deli foods can be loaded with sugar, like pretty much every processed food. And anything that is not a whole food, such as meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains is probably a processed food. You know all those amazing, seemingly healthy Trader Joe’s foods in the cute, natural-looking package? Total sugar bombs. Organic peanut butter cups from TJ’s? First ingredient: sugar. Their not-so-aptly named “Just Grilled Chicken Strips?” Also sugar! Even our favorite “healthy” breakfast item from Starbucks—the Spinach, Feta, and Cage-Free Egg White Wrap—has sugar. Don’t get us wrong; we love Trader Joe’s and Starbucks. But seriously? Sugar in “Just Grilled chicken?”
Processed foods are notorious for hiding sugar in those –ose words. These foods include baked goods, frozen foods, desserts, cereals (it is horrifying how much sugar in those cereals marketed to kids like Captain Crunch or Fruit Loops), condiments, and salad dressings.
Ingredients like honey, molasses, and maple syrup, although natural, are still considered added sugar because we add them to drinks and food to enhance the flavor. So be aware of those in your products as well.
INGREDIENTS LIKE HONEY, MOLASSES, AND MAPLE SYRUP, ALTHOUGH NATURAL, ARE STILL CONSIDERED ADDED SUGAR.
How The Hell Do I Actually Cut Sugar Out Of My Diet?
One of the first things you can do to cut down on processed sugar is “shop the walls” and stick to the perimeter of the grocery store. Since most grocery stores are laid out the same way, the whole foods can usually be found along the walls, and the aisles are where you find the processed foods. Your basket should be filled mostly from the food along the walls.
The next thing you can do is eliminate soda and other sweetened beverages from your diet. If you add sugar to your coffee or tea, start paring down the portion a bit at a time. Being a self-professed over-indulger in sweetened creamers, it shocked me to read the nutritional label and learn that a serving is only one tablespoon, and I was using three times that. Oops. So I’ve adjusted by just using one tablespoon of creamer in my coffee.
If your family drinks a lot of juice, try diluting the juice with water to cut down on some of the sugar your kids are consuming. Or better yet? Cut the juice completely and try sugar-free fizzy waters – we like Spindrift from Trader Joes and Topo Chico.
IF YOUR FAMILY DRINKS A LOT OF JUICE, TRY DILUTING THE JUICE WITH WATER TO CUT DOWN ON SOME OF THE SUGAR YOUR KIDS ARE CONSUMING.
Love Nutella? Convinced that because it’s full of nuts it’s healthy? It’s not. Try substituting simple, sugar-free nut butters instead of the sugar bombs inside of chocolate spreads.
Buy whole-grain cereals instead of the sugary ones and sweeten them with fresh banana slices, strawberries, or other fruits. Or ditch the cold cereal all together for a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal topped with fresh berries. Because truthfully, finding delicious cereals with zero sugar is a fool’s errand. Plus, cereal is semi-addictive and just a big, fat carb bomb.
A big, powerful life change is to commit to making your own sauces and dressings. It’s not hard, but it does take a handful of minutes more. You make your, big, beautiful, crunchy salad and then drown it in thousand island and you might as well be eating a bowl of ice cream for dinner. Don’t ruin all your hard work just by pouring a gallon of corn syrup all over it.
For your kid’s snacks (hell, for yours too) trade out the candy with dried fruit or a mix of dried fruit and nuts, but be wary of most pre-packaged dried fruit because it’s almost always sweetened with added sugar. I know, I know. Is nothing safe?
A 12-oz can of soda contains about 36 grams of sugar or 9 teaspoons. According to the American Heart Association, a woman should consume only 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of sugar a day. Think about what you ate and drank yesterday: all the meals, drinks, snacks, everything. It was probably well over 6 teaspoons of sugar.
It can be hideously depressing when we start to understand just how much sugar we are each consuming, even passively. But with a bit of planning, you can start to chip away at the amount gradually.
Plus, the upshot of cutting back on sugar is that it’s a lifestyle change you can feel the effects of almost right away. Your energy will increase, your complexion will become clearer, and your waistline will shrink. And once you start cutting back, you’ll notice fewer sugar cravings overall. Wins all around. Now, go binge on Hostess Cupcakes because this was wildly depressing. Jokes! Not really though!