All it takes is one Google search to confirm that too much sugar is bad for you. We hear it all the time that we need to eat less sugar. But with the current state of the food label it can be very confusing and hard to identify how much sugar we are actually eating.
Obesity rates are on the rise and sugar sweetened beverages have undoubtedly taken the heat, but that’s only the short story. Leading researchers are finding that added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup might be the causing the liver to work overtime leading to a myriad of issues from metabolic syndrome to fatty liver disease.
With all this talk about lowering sugar intake, the World Health Organization (WHO) is now slashing their sugar recommendations in half, from less than 10% of total calories coming from “free sugars” to 5% for additional health benefits. According to the WHO, “free sugars refer to all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrup, and fruit juices.” However, the majority of your sugar intake should be derived from natural sources. Keep in mind the amount of natural sugar each person requires is highly individualized so it’s not a one size fits all as it depends on one’s activity level, medical history, and other factors.
There is currently no formal recommendation or upper limit for natural sugars in the diet. Currently, MyFitnessPal’s sugar recommendations are based on 15% of total calories coming from sugar, which is based on recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable intake in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines as well as sample menus representative of a healthy diet free of added sugars.
Limiting sugar consumption to 15% of total calories is a great starting point for lowering intake from all sources. If following a “low sugar” diet based on WHO recommendations, a 2000-calorie diet with 5%, or 10% calories from sugar translates to 25 or 50 grams, respectively. To calculate your daily “added” sugar goals: multiply total calories by 10% (or 5%) and then divide by 4 to get total grams of added sugar.
You might ask, what about fruit? Fruit sugar, also known as fructose, is a simple naturally occurring sugar, like lactose found in milk. While fruit does contain sugar, it’s sugar in the way nature intended it, and it’s also loaded with essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Fruit is a fundamental part of the diet but it should be balanced with other foods like vegetables, proteins, healthy fats, whole grains, and dairy.
If you’re looking to cut back on sugar, here are 15 simple hacks for slashing the sweet stuff from your diet:
- Go natural. Eat natural sources of sugar over added sugars. Added sugars like honey, agave, and high fructose corn syrup contain empty calories meaning they have zero nutritional value. Fill up on fresh fruit and vegetables instead because they contain fiber that slows the rate of absorption of carbohydrates along with improving cholesterol levels, digestion, and satiety to help with weight loss.
- Pick low sugar produce. If you’re aiming to eat less sugar overall, pick the fruits and veggies with the lowest sugar load like lemons, limes, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, leafy greens, mushrooms, green beans, and zucchini. Essentially all veggies are low in sugar. To compare, 1 cup raspberries contains 5 grams of sugar, 1 cup black beans contains less than 1 gram of sugar, and a medium red potato contains less than 3 grams of sugar. Keep in mind, low sugar intake doesn’t necessarily mean low carbohydrate.
- Know your portions. Following a low sugar diet requires some diligence in knowing how much you should be eating. In general, most people should consume 2 fruits (or 2 cups) and at least 3 cups of veggies per day. On average 1 serving of fruit contains 15 grams of sugar. Ideally, try to space out your servings so that you aren’t getting a big sugar rush all at once.
- Eat whole and fresh. Limit fruit juices and dried fruit if you are watching the sugar intake. Generally speaking, just 4 fluid ounces (1/2 cup or 120mL) of 100% fruit juice and ¼ cup unsweetened dried fruit is equivalent to 1 piece or 1 cup of fresh, whole fruit.
- Learn the label lingo. The food label doesn’t differentiate between added and natural sugars (though it may in the future), instead it lumps them all together. To get natural sugar sources check the ingredient list to know if there are any added sugars in the product. Sugar lurks behind these words in the ingredient list: molasses, organic cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate, malt sugar, corn syrup, honey, syrup, and words ending in “ose” dextrose, lactose, maltose, fructose, glucose, sucrose. Here’s a more thorough list of sugar’s most common nicknames.
- Compare products. Looking for the lowest sugar foods? Check the nutrition label to see which product is lowest in sugar. Don’t be fooled by “low sugar” or “diet foods” as they are often packed with artificial sugars, which is another blog for another day. Bottom line: eat real “natural” convenience foods lowest in added sugar.
- Track it! Logging your food in MyFitnessPal can help with staying on top of your sugar intake and goals so that you become aware of how much sugar you are really ingesting since they can sure add up fast.
- Fill up on healthy fats. Eat more nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, and salmon. Not only are these foods heart healthy and help with blood sugar control, healthy fats will displace excess sugar from the diet and keep the body satisfied for longer so you are less likely to have energy dips between meals prompting a quick sugar fix.
- Set boundaries on the sweet tooth. Do you have a mean sweet tooth? Set limits on when and how you’re going to enjoy your sweets. Maybe you have ice cream once per week or possibly you’ll include a dark chocolate square after dinner nightly? Setting boundaries around what sweet treats are worth the indulgence, when is appropriate to enjoy them and how much you can enjoy will keep you from reaching in the office candy jar out of habit.
- Eat less packaged food. Foods in their whole form are going to be your best bet when it comes to lowering your sugar intake. According to the New York Times, 75% of packaged foods in the U.S. contain added sugar, so you can simplify your sugar doses by keeping these to a minimum.
- Choose unsweetened dairy. Opt for plain milk and yogurt, and no, vanilla isn’t plain! While there are naturally occurring sugars in milk and yogurt (lactose), many are spiked with sweeteners. So read the labels to get dairy varieties without the sweet stuff, and keep in mind fat-free milk naturally contains more sugar than reduced-fat. Add your own flavor by topping yogurt with chia seeds, blueberries, and cinnamon.
- Pump up the protein. Eating more protein will keep you amped. Protein takes longest to digest so you will be less likely to crash if you’re eating good quality proteins every three to four hours.
- Beware of sugar bombs. Even healthy foods can have sneaky sources of added sugar. Foods like energy bars, lattes, smoothies, juices, enhanced waters, salad dressing, cereals, tomato sauce, and medications are common culprits.
- Lower it gradually. Instead of cutting sugar cold turkey, lower your intakes slowly. If you usually eat sweets after lunch and dinner, start by taking it down to one meal a day.
- Clean out the pantry. If you have tempting foods in the kitchen, you might need to do a little pantry detox. Go out for the ice cream sundae instead of bringing a carton it into the house.
Do you watch your sugar intake? How do you slash sugar from your diet?