Supervising Your Sugar

The substance hides in even some healthy foods

Illustration by Gloria Diianni

Like hemlines and tie widths, nutrition trends can be tough to keep up with. Not too long ago, the anti-fat movement was all the rage. Soon after, carbs became the enemy. Through it all, sugar remained ubiquitous, lurking in even seemingly good-for-you food and salty products such as pretzels.

And America’s girth grew. Today, more than a third of US adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our love affair with processed foods — and the sugar in those products — is not helping matters.

Naturally occurring sugar in foods such as fruit, vegetables and milk comes bundled with benefits that can include vitamins, minerals, protein, antioxidants and fiber. Added sugar, however, which is sugar that manufacturers or home cooks add during food and beverage preparation, provides lots of calories and no nutritional benefits. The excess calories we get from added sugar and the way our body reacts to excessive amounts of sugar contribute to weight gain and lead us down a path to obesity, which in turn raises our risk of a number of ailments and serious health consequences that include diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

From colas and sports drinks to candy, ice cream and snack foods, many products that contain added sugars are abundantly available, convenient and offered in bigger portion sizes than in the past. Because of this, “it’s quite easy to consume much more sugar than we realize,” says Tara I. Efstathiou, MS, RD, LD, clinical dietitian at the Weight and Wellness Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Plus, she notes, sugars are “hidden” even in products we think are good for us, such as high-fiber bread, flavored yogurt and breakfast bars.

Though some health experts say the evidence against the extended effects of sugar is not entirely clear, others go so far as to call sugar “toxic,” on par with tobacco. For sure, overconsumption of it harms our health, and most of us need to be more aware of our sugar intake and take steps to reduce it.

How much is too much? Recent US Dietary Guidelines recommend that added sugars account for no more than 10 percent of our calories. For the average adult, depending on gender and other factors, this means about 200 to 250 calories can come from added sugar. The American Heart Association (AHA) is even more strict, advising that the average man consume no more than roughly 150 calories, or 9 teaspoons, of added sugar per day, and that women should typically limit added sugars to about 100 calories, or 6 teaspoons, per day.
Most American adults are way off from these goals, consuming about 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day, according to the AHA. It’s easy to do. A woman’s morning bowl of whole-grain granola, for example, could easily contain 12 grams — that’s 3 teaspoons — of added sugar, which means, if she follows the AHA’s guidelines, that she will already be halfway toward her daily added-sugar quota by the time she has finished breakfast.

Besides contributing to weight gain and increasing the risk of other harmful health consequences, the added sugar that we consume can displace the needed nutrients — fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals — that come through eating whole foods, says Efstathiou. When we eat sugar in abundance, she says, “we tend to crowd out good nutrition.”

Compared with low-calorie but sugar-laden artificially sweetened products, whole foods such as fruits and vegetables provide nutritional payback — more bang for your caloric buck — because, in addition to offering many benefits without a lot of calories, their fiber helps us feel full, says Patricia Hunter, MA, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian at St. Joseph Hospital Adult Medicine. In contrast, products with added sugars tend to leave us hungry and looking for more. “I very rarely see people who overeat on fruit,” Hunter says. “It’s much easier to overeat on candy bars and pastries and things like that, and when you look at all those things, they’re all refined — there is no fiber. And people will often say the more sugary foods they have, the more they want.”

“If there’s one single thing a person can do to make their diet better,” Hunter says, “it would be to eat more fruits and vegetables.” Most people who do that, she says, feel fuller, and “crave the refined sugars less.”

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