Have you heard the suggestions to reduce sugar in your diet? Why? And what does that even mean? Here’s the scoop and 5 easy tips to start today.
Why Reduce Sugar?
Added sugars add calories. Excessive calories can lead to weight gain. For some people with diabetes, added sugars increase the carbohydrate content of foods which in turn raises their blood sugar. High blood sugar is a strain on the body with negative short- and long-term effects. Even for those not diagnosed with diabetes, excessive sugar consumption makes the body work harder, can cause inflammation and lead to increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Usually added sugars have little or no nutritive value. Meaning, they have no benefit for the body, contain little to no vitamins, minerals or essential nutrients. This is what is meant by the term “empty calories”. Many people think of desserts as the main source of added sugars, but numerous foods and drinks may contain added sugars. For example, sweetened drinks like regular soft drinks, some fruit drinks and energy drinks are all sources of added sugars. Snack foods, like crackers, and even ready-to-eat foods, like pizza and pasta sauces, can be made with added sugars. Some people may also add sugar to what they eat and drink, like sprinkling sugar over cereal or pouring flavored creamer in coffee.
You can find Total Sugars and Added Sugars on the Nutrition Facts Panel of food products. Here the FDA explains further on a sample Nutrition Facts Panel:
1. Total Sugars
Total sugars include sugars naturally present in many nutritious foods and beverages, such as sugar in milk and fruits as well as any added sugars that may be present in the product. There is no daily value for total sugars because no recommendation has been made for the total amount to eat in a day.
2. Added Sugars
Added sugars include sugars that are added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. They do not include naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk, fruits, and vegetables. The daily value for added sugars is 50 grams per day based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet. (Your calorie needs maybe higher or lower depending on age and activity level and can be estimated at https://www.choosemyplate.gov/resources/MyPlatePlan)
A product low in added sugars will have 5% daily value or less. A product high in added sugars has 20% or more of the daily value. You will find this in bold as the percentage next to added sugars on the nutrition facts panel.
The FDA explains further, “You do not have to entirely eliminate added sugars but keeping them in check is a good idea as part of a healthy diet. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that a limited amount of added sugars can be included as part of an overall healthy eating pattern that includes healthy choices from each of the MyPlate food groups (vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein foods). It is important to remember that added sugars is just one piece of information on the label. Looking at the ingredient list and reading all the information on the Nutrition Facts label can help you make the most informed choices.”
5 Tips to Reduce Added Sugars
- Cut back on sugary drinks. Most added sugars in the American diet come from sugary drinks — sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened teas, and others. Additionally, drinks that many people think are healthy, such as smoothies and fruit juices, can still contain large amounts of added sugar.
Instead, choose healthier beverage options that are naturally low in sugar:
- unsweetened sparkling water
- herbal teas
- black or green tea
- Avoid sauces with added sugar. Sauces like ketchup, barbecue sauce, spaghetti sauce, and sweet chili sauce are commonplace in most kitchens. However, most people aren’t aware of their sugar content. A tablespoon of ketchup contains about 1 teaspoon of sugar. That means ketchup is a whopping 29% sugar — more sugary than ice cream.
Look for condiments and sauces labeled “no added sugar” to cut back on the hidden sugars in these products. Other options for seasoning your food that are naturally low in added sugars include herbs and spices, chili, mustard, vinegar, pesto, mayonnaise, and lemon or lime juice.
- Eat whole foods. Whole foods haven’t been processed or refined. They are also free of additives and other artificial substances. These foods include whole fruits, legumes, whole grains, vegetables, and meat on the bone. At the other end of the spectrum are ultra-processed foods. These are prepared foods that contain salt, sugar, fat, and additives in combinations that are engineered to taste amazing — which makes it hard to moderate your intake of these foods.
Examples of ultra-processed foods are soft drinks, sugary cereals, chips, and fast food. Almost 90% of the added sugars in the average American’s diet come from ultra-processed foods, whereas only 8.7% come from foods prepared from scratch at home using whole foods.
Try to cook from scratch when possible, so you can avoid added sugars. You don’t have to cook elaborate meals. Simple preparations like marinated meats and roasted vegetables will give you delicious results. Need recipe inspiration? Check out our dietitian approved recipes.
- Pay attention to “healthy” processed snack foods. Some processed snack foods seem healthy at first glance, and words like “wholesome” or “natural” may be used in their marketing to make them seem healthier than they actually are. Surprisingly, these snacks (such as granola bars, protein bars, and dried fruit) can contain just as much sugar as chocolate and candy bars.
Try these healthy low sugar snack ideas instead:
- nuts and seeds
- no-sugar-added jerky
- hard-boiled eggs
- fresh fruit
- Limit sugary breakfast foods. Some breakfast cereals can be loaded with added sugar. One report found that some of the most popular ones contained more than half their weight in added sugar. What’s more, the report found that granola, which is usually marketed as a health food, has more sugar than any other type of cereal, on average.
Popular breakfast foods — such as pancakes, waffles, and muffins — are also loaded with added sugar. Save those sugary breakfasts for special occasions and try these low sugar breakfasts instead:
- oatmeal sweetened with fresh fruit
- Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts
- egg scramble with cheese and veggies
- avocado on whole grain toast
Choosing a low sugar option with plenty of protein and fiber at breakfast will also help you feel full until lunchtime, preventing unnecessary snacking.
Start One Habit Today
Doing too many things at once to try to improve your health can lead to burnout and, ultimately, failure. If you want to reduce your added sugar intake, pick one thing from the list above and commit to it for 2 weeks. Once it becomes a habit, pick another item and commit to it. Keep the cycle going until you’ve reached your added sugar intake goal.