Are You Consuming Too Much Sugar?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Sugar provides such sweet memories for me. As a child growing up, my mother would often sing the Mary Poppins song A Spoonful of Sugar as she was encouraging us to do tasks and chores we did not want to do. When we had hiccups, she would offer a spoonful of the sweet white granules to suck on to help them go away.

As we seek to make healthier lifestyle choices, it is important to understand the role nutrients like sugar play in our life. Earlier this year I introduced readers to the Life's Simple 7 assessment tool by the American Heart Association designed to help people evaluate their cardiovascular health. Part of the goals of that assessment included maintaining a diet low in sugar.

A study released last week in The Journal of the American Medical Association validated the idea that high sugar consumption plays just as much of a role in heart disease risks as dietary fats. The study found a strong correlation between sugar consumption and lipid profiles. Study individuals with higher sugar consumption appeared to have lower HDL and higher triglyceride levels. These are opposite of what has been found to be protective against heart disease. Average added sugar consumption in the study was over 21 teaspoons per day, which provides over 320 additional calories to daily calorie intake. In comparison, The American Heart Association recommends women limit added sugars to less than six and a half teaspoons (25 grams) per day while men are advised to include less than nine teaspoons (37.5 grams) of added sugars. The World Health Organization suggests diets include no more than 10 percent of caloric intake from added sugars and sweeteners. If we are going to reduce our added sugar intake, perhaps we need to take a closer look to understand what they are and where they come from.

Carbohydrates consist of sugar units called saccharrides. Simple carbohydrates contain either one (monosaccharide) or two (disaccharide) units of sugar that can be quickly broken down and digested. This can be beneficial if someone with diabetes is suffering from low blood sugar levels. It can also be detrimental because research indicates sugar surges trigger insulin responses, which can elevate appetite and excess fat storage. Complex carbohydrates must be broken down into simple sugars during digestion to be used by the body. Because of this factor, complex carbohydrates take longer to be processed by the body so sugar enters the blood stream more slowly. While the body may use simple sugars similarly, it is important to understand the difference between their sources.

Naturally occurring sugars are those that are found naturally in foods along with other important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, or water. Fruits contain naturally occurring sugars called fructose while milk contains sugars known as lactose and those sugars help deliver nutrients necessary to promote health. Natural sugars are typically found in fresh fruit, 100% juice, milk and other whole food sources.

Added sugars are those that are not traditionally present in the food but added during processing to add or enhance flavor. Popular added sugars include table sugar, brown sugar, and high fructose corn syrup. Recently there has been a push for natural sweeteners such as honey, molasses, brown rice syrup and agave nectar. Regardless of whether it is an artificial or natural sweetener, if it is added to a food or beverage such as soft drinks, teas, candy, pies, cakes, cookies or canned fruits, it is an added sugar or sweetener.

It is important to be careful when evaluating your diet for sugar content. It is also necessary to understand what the Nutrition Facts Label is actually telling you related to carbohydrates, fiber, and sugar. The FDA guidelines require labeling of total carbohydrates with identification of what part of that total is fiber and what portion is sugar. Sugars on the nutrition facts label are "the weight in grams of all free monosaccharides and disaccharides in the food." It doesn't specify whether those free mono and di – saccharides are from naturally occurring or added sources only that they are present and in what amount. This is one reason why trying to track sugars on a nutrition tracker is difficult because all sugars are counted the same even though they would not all be considered nutritionally equal. If you are in the mood for a snack and you have three Oreo cookies, you would consume about three teaspoons of sugar with little other nutrients for use by the body. If you choose a serving of fresh strawberries instead, you would consume about 2 teaspoons of sugar along with a host of other health benefitting nutrients. One hundred percent apple juice and Coca Cola provide the same amount of sugar per ounce but very different accompanying nutrients.

Here are some tips to help you make your sugar intake as healthy as possible.

  • Try to select naturally occurring sugars whenever possible. Aim to keep added sugars to less than ten percent of your total calorie intake or around six and a half teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men per day. Although natural sugars may be on the marketing label, remember that cane or beet sugar, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, and agave syrup are added sugars that should be limited.

  • When reading the Nutrition Facts Label, be sure to refer to the ingredients list to evaluate the source of the sugars that are reported. Remember the higher up on the list sugar is listed, the more sugar in the item. Some of the more common sugars include corn sweetener, dextrose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, maltose and sucrose.

  • Soft drinks account for approximately half of the added sugar intake in the American diet as well as many other sugar filled juice and sports drinks, waters and teas. You can make a significant reduction in added sugar intake by eliminating sugar filled drinks in favor of water or milk. Although 100% juice is a nutrient rich naturally occurring sugar source, it is best to limit them to no more than one cup per day.

  • There are many ways to reduce your added sugar gradually which makes it easier to stick with it for success. If you are a cereal lover, look at your favorite and see if there is another option. For instance, perhaps you could switch to Cheerios that provides less than a teaspoon of sugar per bowl instead of Frosted Mini Wheats, which contains three teaspoon per serving. If you usually select sweetened applesauce, try switching to unsweetened instead.

  • We all get cravings for something sweet. Before you reach for candy, think about nutrient rich naturally sweet options such as dried fruits like raisins, dates, or prunes. Spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, mace and nutmeg can add sweetness as well. Be creative with sweet spices to trick the tongue without adding sugars.
One teaspoon of sugar contains approximately 4 grams and 16 calories. Although there are naturally occurring sources, many of us consume too much sugar from added sources, which isn't healthy.

Do you need to reduce your added sugar intake? What steps have worked for you or will you take to reduce your sugar intake?