Did you know that the average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar each year? Our diets consist of mostly sugar when it really should be adding sparingly. Sugar consumption is more than baked goods and candy. In fact, common food items contain natural sugars. The Standard American Diet as well as an overabundance of over-processed foods and beverages is a big part of the problem. Packaged and everyfoods and condiments have added sugar hidden in it, which can make limiting our intake of sugar more challenging.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, a healthy dietary pattern limits added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day. Most adults exceed this recommendation through overconsumption of foods and beverages high in added sugar and underconsumption of nutrient-dense foods. Sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts, sweet snacks, sweetened coffe and tea, and candy are some of the primary sources of added sugar in the typical U.S diets.
What is Sugar and Why Should We Limit It?
Sugar is a carbohydrate that is one of the three essential macronutrients in our diet. When we eat carbohydrates our bodies convert them into glucose which feeds our cells energy with the help of insulin. Although, before it can be used for energy, glucose goes into the bloodstream and raises our blood glucose levels. When we eat something like chocolate or juice that is mainly sugar, blood glucose spikes rapidly and then crashes. Crashing is due to an influx of insulin which is working to bring our levels down to “normal” or homeostasis. This causes fluctuations in energy levels leading to fatigue and typically makes you crave more sugar to get energy. As you can imagine, this can be a vicious cycle.
Excess sugar consumption can cause repeated glucose spikes which can contribute to long-term health problems. Overconsumption of added sugar drives inflammation and can increase the risk for pre-diabetes and diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, tooth decay and more.
Saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame-K are common artificial sweeteners in the U.S. Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes are used to sweeten our food and beverages. People generally turn to sugar alternatives to reduce their calorie and sugar intake. You may notice your favorite sweets or drinks labeled “sugar-free” or “diet” but still has that addicting sweet taste. That is because they contain artificial sweeteners.
Alternative sweeteners are non-nutritive meaning they contain no calories. This makes them an appealing option for those trying to lose or control their weight. Adding intense sweetener chemicals to our food and beverages cause them to have a very sweet taste. Sucralose, for example, is a sugar substitute that is 600x sweeter than regular table sugar, therefore you only need a small amount to get the same sweet taste. It is also an alternate option for diabetics since artificial sweeteners don’t spike your blood sugar as table sugar does.
Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the FDA and are under GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) meaning that the chemical or substance added to food is considered safe to eat. Despite this, studies show that there may be a few adverse outcomes to consuming these sugar alternatives.
Adequate gut health is essential for the overall health and wellness of our bodies. Poor gut health can result in weight gain, anxiety, and lack of energy, among other unfavorable health outcomes. Our diet has a huge impact on our gut health and depending on what we eat can alter our microbiome. Studies show that artificial sweeteners can disrupt the gut microbiome and alter its delicate ecosystem in negative ways. Although more research is needed, it is definitely not something that we should overlook when it comes to our health.
Artificial sweeteners contain no calories which make it popular to maintain or aid in weight loss. Makes sense right? However, some studies have shown the opposite may be true. This study suggests that artificial sweeteners may contribute to metabolic syndrome, increased calorie consumption and obesity. This is due to the way they are seen to alter our gut microbiome which can lead to decreased satiety and negatively affect glucose homeostasis in the body.
Furthermore, since artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times more sweet than table sugar, it is thought that they can for regular sugar or fresh fruite and no longer perseve them as being sweet enough. Foods containing natural sugars may be no longer appaling to us resulting in eating less and less of them.
Yogurt, milk or cream, fresh and dried fruits all contain natural sugar. These differ from added sugars because they are in their natural, whole form. Foods containing natural sugars are typically low in sodium, have a high water content, and are rich in vitamins/minerals. Looking at the big picture, foods containing natural sugars also provide essential nutrients we need for overall health and wellness.
Fruits are a good source of fiber which slows down the digestion of natural sugars resulting in a lower spike in blood glucose. Milk contains lactose which is a natural sugar that is also a good source of protein and provides longer-lasting energy. If you are concerned about spiking your blood sugar by eating these foods, keep in mind that they also naturally contain nutrients that can lower this spike.
The body absobed natural and refined sugars the same, even though natural sugars are in their whole form. Eating them in excess will contribute to a higher glucose spike and overconsumption of any type of sugar can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain and other adverse health outcomes.
Read Food Labels
As we mentioned before, sugar is sneakily hidden in many of our favorite snacks and condiments which is why it is critical to read food labels. Let’s use yogurt as an example. Yogurt contains natural fermented sugars like lactose to produce probiotics. It is also a good source of protein and contains essential vitamins and minerals. Plain greek yogurt can be a highly nutritious food option and contains about 6g grams of total sugar and 0g grams of added sugar. That means that the 6g of sugar are natural. If you get the same greek yogurt but vanilla flavored, now you are consuming 16g of total sugar with 10g of added sugar.
You want to limit your intake of the added sugar. Cane sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, or dextrose being added means additional sugar was added.
Here are some tips to lower your intake of added sugar:
- Add fresh fruits - instead of adding sugar to cereals, yogurt or oatmeal, add some fresh berries, a banana, or spices like cinnamon instead. Opt for fresh fruit to curve a mid-day sweet tooth too.
- Swap soda for sparkling water - add mint, lemon, or berries for some flavor
- Compare food labels - be mindful of ingredient labels when food shopping and look for the option with the lowest amount of added sugar.
- Substitute it when baking - switch out sugar when baking with unsweetened applesauce in equal amounts or mashed banana
- Store bought tomato sauce - make your own homemade sauce by blending fresh tomatoes, olive oil and herbs in a blender.
- Pass on the bottled salad dressing - choose olive oil and lemon juice or balsamic vinegar instead.
- Lower your serving size - cut recipes that call for refined or brown sugar in half. The odds are you won’t even notice the difference.
Stop The Artificial Sweet Tooth
You want to try to limit your intake of sugar in all forms for an overall healthy diet. Whenever you can, choose real, whole foods and avoid processed food. Although natural sugars are still “sugar”, it is best to consume them in their whole form than as added or chemically modified. Whole foods that contain natural sugars are rich in other powerful nutrients that are essential for optimal health and wellness. If you have certain health conditions such as diabetes, PCOS, or are overweight/obese, it is important to be mindful of your sugar intake even in its natural form. You can also chat in with your friendly Vessel nutritionist for more ways to lower your sugar intake.
Sara Chille See all the author’s articles