Resolve to Eat Less Added Sugar in 2021
Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Most Americans resolve to improve their health each year with plans to exercise more, lose weight, and eat more healthily. One of the best resolutions you can make to improve your health in 2021 is to eat less added sugar.
Recent news reports have equated the dangers of sugar to that of tobacco, warning of risks of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer.
But there’s a lot of confusing and conflicting information about how sugar can and should be included in our diet. For example, are some types of sugar healthier than others? Should all sugars, including fruit, be avoided?
While you might think you’re not eating much sugar, chances are you’re eating a lot more than you realize. We tend to think that added sugar is mainly found in sweet things like cookies, candy, and ice cream. But it's also found in many savory foods, such as bread, prepared foods, and pasta sauce. Even some foods promoted as "natural" or "healthy" are laden with added sugars, furthering the confusion. In fact, sugar is added to most packaged foods sold in supermarkets. So, even if you skip dessert, you may still be consuming a lot of added sugar.
When we consume foods with sugar, our body breaks down the sugar into glucose and fructose. Glucose is the main energy source for the body’s cells. Glucose enters the bloodstream and can be either used immediately for energy or stored by the body in the liver for use later. If the liver already has enough stored energy, the sugar gets converted to fat for long-term storage.
Fructose is metabolized differently. Fructose needs to be converted into glucose by the liver before it can be used by the body. While every cell in the body can use glucose, the liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose in significant amounts. When people eat a diet that is high in calories and high in fructose, the liver gets overloaded and starts turning the fructose into fat. Many scientists believe that excess fructose consumption may be a key driver of many serious diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
It is important to distinguish naturally occurring versus added sugar. Natural sugars exist in fruits and vegetables and typically increase as they ripen (think of a ripe vs. unripe banana). Though you are consuming sugar, you’re also consuming vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, which impacts the way the body metabolizes the sugar. Foods with added sugar tend to be higher in calories and lower in nutritional value, and they don’t usually have the additional vitamins, minerals, and fiber that foods with natural sugars offer. The fiber content of whole, unprocessed food is key here because fiber makes us feel full and satiated for longer. Therefore, it’s very hard to overeat foods with natural sugar as you would have to eat very large amounts to reach harmful levels. Without fiber to signal fullness, foods that contain added sugars are more likely to be consumed in excess.
While the natural sugar in fruit consists of about half glucose and half fructose, in general fruit is a minor source of fructose in the diet compared to added sugars. And loaded with fiber and and lots of other good stuff, fruit is a safe way to enjoy something sweet. The harmful effects of fructose and sugar apply to a diet full of processed foods with added sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup.
Repeated excessive, added sugar intake, especially in the form of fructose, can negatively affect health in many ways, including:
Increased likelihood of memory deficits and risk of Alzheimer’s disease
Increased blood pressure and triglycerides, which may cause cardiovascular and liver disease
Increased likelihood of tooth decay
Distorting the hunger and satiety hormones, causing overeating and increased risk of obesity
Potential insulin resistance and possibly higher risk of type 2 diabetes
Disrupting the gut microbiome and negatively impairing immunity
Promoting inflammation, the underlying cause of many chronic diseases
Replacing nutrient-dense calories, possibly leading to vitamin deficiencies, even if caloric needs are being met or exceeded
Increased blood levels of uric acid, leading to gout and high blood pressure
Even if you have no particular health problem related to your sugar intake, realize that sugar’s negative impact on health can slowly and insidiously accumulate over time, and virtually all Americans consume too much. So it’s worthwhile to be mindful of the added sugars hiding in your food. Food manufacturers often include sugar in other forms, confusing consumers into thinking products contain less sugar than they really do. Sugar can be added in the form of syrups (cane syrup, high fructose corn syrup), -oses (dextrose, sucrose), -ides (monosaccharides, polysaccharides), artificial sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin), and sugar alcohols (erythritol, sorbitol, xylitol), as well as from natural sources like fruit juice, agave, and honey.
Fortunately, the nutrition facts label on packaged foods and drinks has been updated to make it easier for us to see the amount of added versus naturally occurring sugars in processed products.
Total sugars include sugars naturally present in food, such as sugar in milk and fruits, as well as any added sugars. Added sugars include sugars that are added during the processing of food. They do not include naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk, fruits, and vegetables. That means that the product with the label above contains 7 grams of added sugars and 8 grams of naturally occurring sugars – for a total of 15 grams of sugar.
You might be surprised by the amount of added sugar in packaged foods. Foods that you might consider healthy may contain sneaky amounts of added sugar including:
Plant milks (such as almond and coconut)
Cured and deli meats (such as bacon, prosciutto, ham, and turkey)
Condiments (such as mustard and ketchup)
Sauces (such as marinara or barbecue)
Cereals and granola bars
While consuming products with added sugar in the form of natural sweeteners is likely better than those with highly processed refined white sugar, added sugar is still added sugar. To the body they are all sugars that are stored as fat when not immediately needed. Therefore, we should be mindful to read the labels on the items we are purchasing and limit those with any form of added sugars.
When baking or cooking at home, we can replace highly processed, refined white sugar with more natural sweeteners, and cut down on the overall amount of any sugar included in recipes. You can replace the white sugar called for in recipes with maple syrup (my personal favorite), honey, or coconut sugar. While agave is often touted as a good, natural replacement for refined sugars because of its relatively low impact on blood glucose levels, agave is high in fructose, and should be avoided or consumed in moderation. I also find that the amount of sugar in recipes can be cut by at least half and often eliminated altogether when replaced by naturally sweet ingredients like ripe bananas, dried fruit, applesauce, and yogurt.
If you have ever tried to reduce the amount of sugar you consume, but have not succeeded, know that breaking a sugar habit is really hard. It’s not just finding the strength to say no to that piece of cake or bowl of ice cream, but also avoiding the sugar that’s lurking in your yogurt, pasta sauce, and salad dressing. And when you stop consuming sugar your body goes through withdrawal, leading to both physical and mental symptoms such as irritability, fatigue, difficulty focusing, and headaches.
As a result, many people try and fail. The power of sugar is strong! But the benefits of cutting added sugar from your diet, including losing weight, protecting yourself from chronic disease and boosting your overall health, are worth the effort. So, this time set yourself up for success with the personalized support and accountability of Swan Wellness health coaching. Together, we will map out a doable plan with small, easy steps, that are comfortable and will get you to where you want to be – free from added sugar and its negative impact on your health.