Nutrition

Added Sugar Is Probably a Bigger Problem In Your Diet Than You Think

A look at the science of what added sugar does to your health, plus simple tricks to scale back.

Sugar is everywhere, and it’s surprisingly sneaky. Eating too much added sugar—the stuff pumped into food and drinks as opposed to what occurs naturally—is a culprit in a host of health problems that go beyond weight gain and diabetes. The sweet stuff has been implicated in everything from depression to heart disease to cancer. No wonder research shows that high intakes can bring on early death. This is a strong indication that the body responds to sugary calories differently than it does to other kinds of calories. Yes, being very active helps lower your risk for sugar-related maladies but it won’t completely shield you from its nefarious health impacts. 

The added sweeteners found abundantly in our food supply have become such a pressing matter that the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans cap how much we should consume each day. While calorie and sugar needs vary from one person to the next—a triathlete can get away with consuming more of both than a sedentary person—your goal should be to limit added sugar intake to no more than 10% of your total daily calories. The World Health Organization also suggests striving for a 10% limit, but it stresses that 5% would be even better, or about 25 grams of added sugar in a day. If you’re like most Americans you are blowing away this upper limit—17% of the daily calories in the average diet hails from added sugars. 

The sheer amount of sugar in our food supply can make it seem like a Sisyphean effort to cut back. From sweets to sodas, and even many savory foods, it’s seemingly everywhere. While sugar consumption is one of the toughest food habits to break, it’s possible to lower intake by using these simple tactics to wean yourself and make better choices.

Is there more added sugar in your diet than you realize?
Is there more added sugar in your diet than you realize? Photo: Getty Images

Refine Your Shopping Cart

You may know enough to skip the pastry counter, checkout line candy bars, and the ice cream freezers at the supermarket. But what about your go-to pasta sauce? Or your favorite brand of almond butter? The not-so-sweet truth about added sugar is that it’s hiding literally everywhere—even foods like whole-grain bread you think are a safe bet to be sugar-free. The sad reality is that about 75% of packaged foods on store shelves contain some form of added sweetener, a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics revealed. A half a cup of spaghetti sauce may be packing almost as much sugar as a donut. It’s best to assume that any food that comes in a package might contain a sweetener in one form or another. So even if you strictly avoid obvious sugar-packed drinks and snacks, you may still consume more of the ingredient than you realize.

Fight back against added sugar:

You can weed out a lot of the sweet stuff from your diet by judiciously comparing brands of similar products to drop items in your cart that contain less added sugar. This process is now easier thanks to a new FDA labeling law that requires food and beverage packages to have a Nutrition Facts label that contains a separate line showing how much sugar has been added as opposed to what occurs naturally. Another pro move is to look for label lingo such as “no added sugar” or “unsweetened” which means any sugar in the item was placed there by Mother Nature. Some foods that claim to be low-fat are often sugar-lofty because manufacturers are trying to distract your taste buds when fat is reduced. Ultimately, you can eat dessert every day if you simply work at cutting out most of the sneaky sources of added sugar in your diet. 

Know the Lingo

When you read food and drink ingredient lists, look for more than just the word “sugar.” Sugar tends to disguise itself with other names that make it sound much more wholesome than it really is (ahem, fruit juice concentrate). To successfully weed out added sweeteners, you need to be able to recognize the many aliases food and drink companies employ. 

Fight back against added sugar:

Be sure to flip over packages and examine ingredient lists word-for-word on the hunt for sugar by any given name. These double agents include agave, maltodextrin, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, coconut nectar, barley malt, organic dried cane syrup, fruit juice concentrate, turbinado, dextrose, and maltose (basically any word ending in -ose). Even honey and maple syrup should be considered added sugars. A study in The Journal of Nutrition found that when people ate the same amount (about 2 tablespoons) of honey, sucrose (i.e. white sugar), or much-maligned high fructose corn syrup every day for two weeks, they experienced the same concerning metabolic changes including a rise in blood triglycerides and markers of inflammation, both risk factors for heart problems. If you see any of these listed high up in the ingredient list or multiple sweeteners appear in the list then it’s a good bet the item should be approached with caution. And don’t let feel-good packaging phrases like “natural” or even “organic” fool you. 

Drink Responsibly

Sweetened drinks remain the biggest source of added sugar calories in the standard American diet. And because sugar in liquid form is digested more quickly its impact on health can be more aggressive. Avoiding the usual suspects including sodas, energy drinks, and bottled coffee and tea is a good starting point, but they’re far from the only sugar-packed potions out there. Beverages that are being marketed to us as being health-promoting are increasingly feeding our sugar urges. These include everything from kombucha to oat milk to green juices to enhanced waters.  

Fight back against added sugar:

To avoid drinking your way into the sugar danger zone, be sure that the majority of your daily beverage intake hails from unsweetened drinks such as black coffee, brewed green tea, plain milk, unsweetened veggie juices, and reliable tap water. During a long workout or immediately afterward is a good time to allow any sweetened drinks to sneak into your diet. This includes a post-sweat recovery smoothie that might include a drizzle of honey. Since fruit juices lack the fiber found in whole fruits and deliver a more concentrated dose of fruit sugar, it’s also a good idea to go easy on the OJ.

Break the Bar Habit

From bars to gels to sports drinks, sugar in one form or another is often present in high amounts in sports nutrition products. And for good reason: it provides an easily digested, fast-acting form of carbohydrates to energize workouts. While these can power your runs and rides, they won’t do much to help your overall diet (or dentist bill!) if consumed too liberally at other times of the day. 

Fight back against added sugar:

Stick with using these products during long workouts and races and opt for more wholesome, lower-sugar foods during the rest of the day. So instead of reaching for a sugary energy bar for a mid-day snack go for a whole food approach such as apple slices dipped in sugar-free peanut butter. 

Measure Up

Do you really know how much maple syrup you are pouring on your Sunday pancakes or how many white crystals you’re stirring into your coffee? Was that 1 teaspoon or 1 tablespoon of brown sugar that went on my oatmeal? Studies show that we are generally horrible at estimating portion sizes so it’s easy to see how people could be adding more sugar to their daily menu than they think. 

Fight back against added sugar:

Break out the measuring spoons and cups to get a better awareness of the amount of sweeteners you are sweetening your foods and drinks with. So if you’re topping off your yogurt bowl with a tablespoon of honey perhaps you could trim back to 1 or 2 teaspoons. Cutting back a little bit here and there can add up. 

Scale Back Recipes

If you’re embracing your inner Martha Stewart and baking up a batch of muffins or cookies, keep in mind that many recipes call for more sugar than what is necessary—mainly to appease taste buds that are trained to want a sweet fix when biting into banana bread. So if you come across a recipe for blueberry muffins that request a cup of sugar consider this a red flag that needs tweaking.  

Fight back against added sugar:

Unless a recipe is written specifically to be lower in sugar than what is typical, try experimenting by reducing the amount of sweetener called for by one-quarter to one-third. This shouldn’t noticeably change the final result with respect to texture, moistness, and taste, but will give you less of a sugar buzz. Including natural sources of sweetness in recipes like berries, mashed banana, dried fruits, and pureed pumpkin can help you slash the need for using large amounts of processed sugars. Also, use spices like cinnamon and allspice to add a sense of calorie-free sweetness to food instead of honey or refined white sugar.

Set Up Your Plate to Banish Cravings

It’s a vicious cycle: the spikes and sudden drops in blood sugar levels caused by spoiling a sweet tooth rotten can lead to further sugar urges, which then sets you up for more sugar highs and lows. Making sure to include slow-digesting protein and fiber with your meals and snacks will bolster satiety as well as help stabilize blood sugar levels throughout the day setting you up for less sugar lust.

Fight back against added sugar:

For meals, aim to include at least 20 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber to help stave off the hunger monster. As for snacks, look for options that give you at least 5 grams of protein and 3 to 5 grams of fiber—a cup of plain Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup raspberries would fit the bill. 

Satisfy a Sweet Tooth the Natural Way

Our cave-dwelling ancestors didn’t get their sweet fix from M&Ms. Instead, they got it from foods that contain natural sweetness. The naturally occurring sugar present in fruits and certain vegetables like beets are bundled with fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants which makes them a lot less hazardous to our health than what is infused into processed packaged foods. Besides, the amount of sugar you’d consume from whole foods is generally lower since the quantity of sugar per serving is often lower. You’d have to eat a lot of whole carrots to get anywhere near the same levels of sugar found in carrot cake. Once you’ve removed a good portion of the added sugar from your diet, your tastebuds will likely become more sensitive to even the subtle sweetness inherent in natural fruits and vegetables.

Fight back against added sugar:

Try getting a larger percentage of your daily sugar from plants and unsweetened dairy which will not only serve to boost your nutrient intake to support training efforts but also recalibrate your taste buds to enjoy less saccharine foods and drinks. This can be as easy as adorning a bowl of plain yogurt with berries and serving up a roasted root vegetable medley for dinner. Dried fruit can serve as a good alternative to some of the packaged sugary energy foods during long workouts. There are also snack foods on the market such as KIND Whole Fruit bars and BARE apple chips that are plenty sweet without any added sweeteners. 

Limit the Fake Stuff

Don’t consider foods and drinks made with non-caloric or artificial sweeteners a free pass. If anything, these sweeteners can make you more of a slave to sweet foods. Because they’re often many times sweeter than sugar, they essentially dull your taste buds and train them to respond more to hypersweet foods and drinks. So after a while, naturally sweet foods like fruit just don’t cut it anymore. The goal is to start enjoying less sweet foods, not more. Also, if you drink a diet soda or munch on stevia-sweetened cookies, you might be more likely to give yourself permission to splurge on a bigger slice of cake or scoop of ice cream later on. For these reasons, studies have generally found less than impressive results with respect to calorie-free sweeteners and weight loss.

Fight back against added sugar:

Aim to lower the amount of ALL sweeteners in your diet including lab-created versions like sucralose and less menacing sounding types including stevia and monk fruit extract. Be wary about that protein bar or Keto cookie that claims to be sugar-free but still tastes ultra-sweet. Again, being a label reading sleuth can go a long way in achieving this goal. And perhaps skip pouring the Splenda or Equal into your coffee. 

Ease Up on the Joe, Maybe

That double espresso you brew up before your morning run might be doing more than helping you push the pace. A recent study published in the Journal of Food Science found that caffeine can alter our taste buds so we perceive foods as less sweet than they are. So that pastry your grab on the way to work along with your brew could come off as containing less sugar than it does. And when you can’t taste sweetness as well, you’re likely to consume more to appease your natural sweet tooth.

Fight back against added sugar:

More research is needed on the impact that an Americano can have on how well we register sweetness, but if your sugar urges tend to rage around the same time as your daily coffee habit and you find yourself diving into the donut box in the office break room, it may be worth making a switch to decaf to see if it helps. 

Sweat Away Sugar Urges

The next time you’re about to drop your hand in the cookie jar hop on the saddle instead. Research shows the simple act of exercising is enough to tame cravings for sugary snack foods. Exercise can alter your hormone stew including temporarily suppressing hunger hormones and also tame cravings associated with boredom or stress.

Fight back against added sugar:

You don’t need an epic workout to tamp down chocolate bar temptation. Simply taking a 15-minute brisk walk is enough to reset your appetite for the sweet stuff. So if there is a particular time of day where you find yourself eating or drinking sugary items such as after dinner, consider scheduling in a bit of movement during this time slot. 

Get Enough Sleep

Skimping on zzz’s can set you up for sugar lust. Sleeping for less than seven hours each night may lead people to increase their intake of sugary foods and eat a generally less healthy diet, finds a King’s College London study. The researchers found that improving sleep patterns in participants resulted in a 10-gram (2.5 teaspoons worth) reduction in added sugar intake. Sleep, or a lack of it, affects our brain and our appetite hormones. For instance, a lack of adequate amounts of shut-eye can dampen the brain’s reward pathways that serve to drive sugary food and drink intake. It can also drive up levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin making it harder to resist chocolate temptation. 

Fight back against added sugar:

If you’re struggling to get adequate amounts of sleep, look for ways to improve what is being called sleep hygiene. This can include going without caffeine-containing drinks, foods, and supplements later in the day, avoiding staring at electronic screens at least an hour before bedtime, and establishing relaxing post-sunset routines.