Sugar is the new fat when it comes to your health. Remember back in the ‘90s when fat was thought to be the root of all evil? Well, now it’s sugar. Sugar is blamed for almost everything, whether it’s weight gain, brain fog, or chronic disease––sugar is on the no-no list.
Is sugar really the root of all evil, though? Should you remove it completely from your diet? And how much is too much? These are questions I am asked often, and I’m betting this may cause some confusion for you, too.
Added vs. Natural Sugars
At the risk of turning this post into an incredibly boring chemistry lesson, let’s keep it simple. First let’s distinguish between added sugars and naturally-occurring sugars. Fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt, beans, grains, even nuts, all contain natural sugar. These foods also contain water, fiber, and other valuable nutrients. If you were to eliminate all of the foods from your diet that contain a trace of sugar, you would be left with little else to eat except meat. Which, in addition to being unhealthy, is terribly boring. I think it’s safe to say that the sugar in these foods is probably not what everyone is up in arms about.
What about the added sugars? These are the sugars that the food industry adds to food in order to make it look and taste better. There are many different types of sugar: sugar, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), dehydrated cane juice, fructose, glucose, dextrose, syrup, cane sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, and more.
When these sugars are added to foods, it’s usually done in excess of what you would find naturally. For example, one 7.5 fluid oz. can of soda has the same amount of sugar in two apples, with none of the good stuff. Think about how quickly those sugars can add up in your day. It’s this unnatural overload of sugar on our system that’s interfering with normal insulin action, raising blood sugar levels, causing weight gain and inflammation, and many other health problems.
The most effective method of keeping blood sugar levels down is by avoiding the intake of processed sugars, and making sure each of your meals and snacks contain fiber, lean protein, and a moderate amount of healthy fat.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but whole foods are going to be a better choice than artificially made or highly processed and refined foods. Whole foods not only contain sugar in normal amounts, but they also contain other nutrients that can mitigate the effects of sugar, like fiber. Fiber slows down digestion and prevents the insulin spikes you get when you eat foods with little to no fiber, but tons of sugar. I’m talking about soda. And Skittles. I think you get the point.
How Much Sugar Should You Eat
According to the American Heart Association, men can consume up to 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons) and women can consume up to 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons) in sugar. This can seem like a ton of sugar for some people yet not enough to get by for others.
You don’t have to remove all sugar from your diet in order to be healthy. This is difficult to sustain long-term and for some, takes the joy out of eating. What you do have to pay attention to is overconsuming sugar, and to a larger extent, calories. This is the real problem when it comes to sugar intake: taking in copious amounts of sugar (especially in the form of sweetened drinks and soda) that doesn’t fill you up. Studies show that sugar does the most damage when you eat more of it than you would ever find naturally in whole foods AND you don’t compensate for those extra calories later in the day.
To minimize the amount of unnatural sugar in your diet, start cutting back or removing the following foods:
- Soft drinks and soda
- Fruit juices and sweetened teas
- Candies and sweets
- Overly sweet baked goods
- Fruit canned in syrup
- Highly sweetened yogurts
- Highly sweetened cereals
- Highly processed baked snacks and cereal bars
- Sweetened sauces and dressings
- Ice cream and frozen desserts
Also, consider using sugar alternatives in your own cooking. Maple syrup, dates, honey, molasses and sorghum are naturally occurring sugars that also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Avoiding processed foods and satisfying your sweet tooth with fresh, whole foods like fruit is the best way to control your sugar intake. This approach keeps things simple and doesn’t require math, calorie counting, or obsessively reading food labels.