Have you ever paid attention to the amount of sugar in your food? I'm not talking about the obvious sweet choices we intentionally make like having a bowl of ice cream or a piece of chocolate after lunch. Rather, I am referring to the sugar that has been added to seemingly non-sweet foods such as tortillas, chicken broth, smoked salmon, mustard, hot sauce, salad dressing, sliced bread, crackers, and sliced cheese. The manufacturers of processed foods have been secretly adding sugar to so much of what we eat that our palettes have been altered without us even being aware of it. And, more importantly, the delicious sugar being added to our foods is causing diabetes and obesity rates to soar, and many researchers are starting to believe that sugar is a contributing factor to cancer, heart disease, and Alzeihmer's disease.
Just like tracking and counting calories, counting sugar grams is a painstakingly cumbersome approach to eating. Yet, until you are aware of the amount of sugar added to the foods you eat, the reward for tracking (and then cutting back) on sugar might just be worth it. In his recently published and best-selling book, The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes suggests that sugar is to present day society as tobacco was to people 40 years ago. This is a wildly controversial and daring comparison, but I cannot say that I don't agree with him.
About three years ago, I was very diligent about the amount of sugar I consumed. I figured that if I was telling my clients to eat less than 24 grams of sugar daily (the recommendation established by the World Health Organization), then I should do that too. I did not cut sugar in order to lose weight, although for many people reducing sugar will help them shed some pounds and reshape their body (flatter stomach), I cut sugar in order to eat cleaner, to have more stable energy levels, and to help reduce my risk of the multiple diseases linked to sugar intake and metabolic disorder.
A good long-term plan for most people is no more than 50 grams, about 12.5 teaspoons, of added sugar per day. This might seem like a whooping amount of sugar, yet one 16-ounce bottle of Coke has 52 grams of added sugar. An even better goal is to aim for closer to 25 grams of added sugars daily. The type of sugar does not matter with regard to how our body processes it. What seems to be important is the quantity and the idea of added versus natural sugar. For instance, the Coke referenced earlier derives 100% of its calories from added sugar. An apple, on the other hand, derives about 50% of its calories from sugar, and the remaining calories from fiber and minimally from protein and fat. Foods with added sugar don’t have the same nutritional benefits as foods with natural sugar, and eating more than the recommended 50 grams makes it hard to eat nutrient-dense foods.
A wise approach when thinking about reducing added sugars is to use the definition used by Whole30 - sugar that occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy is allowed, but every single added sweetener contributes to that overall goal of less than 25 - 50 grams per day. The first line of defense is to look for sugar in the ingredients list. Other names for sugar include sucrose, brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, and raw cane syrup/sugar. If they’re listed in the top five ingredients on the food label, it’s best to reach for something else to eat. The FDA recently mandated that labels include a line for “added sugars” to help consumers make informed choices. Food companies will need to implement these changes by mid 2018. Until that time, you can estimate the amount of added sugar in a food that also contains naturally occurring sugars- like milk or yogurt- by comparing the nutrition label for the plain version with that of a flavored version. For example, 5.3 ounces of Chobani plain whole milk yogurt has 4 grams of sugar (lactose). The same amount of Chobani apricot yogurt has 15 grams of sugar. If you take away the 4 grams of lactose, you are left with 11 grams of added sugar in a Chobani flavored yogurt.
I am certainly not suggesting to stop eating sweet things altogether. Everything practiced in moderation is almost always acceptable and, in fact, the Mediterranean Diet, which I believe to be the most superior diet to model, poses that sweets be enjoyed on a weekly, but not daily, basis Part of the goal in reducing sugar, is to relearn how a diet that isn’t dominated by sweeteners tastes. Wouldn't be nice to really enjoy the natural sweetness of a crisp apple or juicy mango? Retraining your taste buds can help open up a whole new culinary world while helping you to stay healthy at the same time.
I am on a nutrition writing kick, so more on my personal favorite, the Mediterranean Diet, to come soon...