Let’s talk about sugar. There's a dark side to this sweet substance. It tastes great, but it's very easy to consume lots of it. And we do consume lots of it. Currently, the United States ranks as having the highest average daily sugar consumption per person - coming in at 126.40 grams.
Now compare that to what the American Heart Association recommends. The maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are 37.5 grams for men and 25 grams for women. That’s a lot of extra sugar - and it’s causing a lot of problems related to our weight and our health.
The Dangers of Added Sugar
First thing’s first: we need to define added sugar. “Added sugar” refers to the presence of any sugars that are added to a food product during their production. Note that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) distinguishes added sugars from the fructose and glucose present in fruits and some vegetables. While sugar and added sugars have the same chemical makeup, fruit and vegetables have measurable health benefits and are digested at a slower rate than added sugar. These factors balance out their sugary contents.
The problem in America is that we consume a large amount of added sugars (and far too few fruits and vegetables). And excessive added sugar consumption in food and drink alike is linked to a variety of health problems. Some of the more minor problems include acne and premature aging. But consuming large amounts of added sugar have also been linked to these problems:
- Weight gain. Weight gain is a growing problem in the United States. And being overweight or obese (that is, grossly overweight) is connected to a variety of chronic illnesses. The excess weight itself is also problematic. It puts extra pressure on our joints, contributes to the development of fatty tissue, and can make it difficult to exercise or sleep.
- Heart disease. High-sugar diets have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, the number one cause of death worldwide. Specifically, added sugar increases heart disease risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, and inflammation. Added sugars have also been linked to the development of atherosclerosis - a disease characterized by fatty deposits that create blockages in the arteries.
- Diabetes. Sugar is best associated with this disease. That’s because excessive sugar consumption can lead to obesity and insulin resistance, both of which are risk factors for diabetes.
- Cancer. Too much sugar can lead to obesity, insulin resistance, and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for cancer.
- Mental illness. A diet rich in added sugar and processed foods may increase depression risk in both men and women. Experts currently believe blood sugar swings, neurotransmitter dysregulation, and inflammation are to blame.
Frighteningly, the list of sugar-related health risks goes on! Dental problems, gout, kidney disease...numerous issues are linked to diets high in added sugars specifically. So what’s the solution?
The Solution: Eat Less Added Sugar
There are a number of dietary changes you can make to address your added sugar intake. And by making these changes, you’ll reduce your risk of developing many illnesses - particularly if you make enough changes to lose some weight!
We recommend the following:
- No more sugary drinks. Sugar-filled beverages are the greatest offender in terms of added sugars. We highly recommend skipping the soda, energy drinks, juice, and sweetened tea. Instead, drink plain water. If you absolutely need a little extra “something”, choose unsweetened seltzer, coffee, or tea instead of their sugary counterparts.
- Substitute fruit for dessert. If you have a sweet tooth, this tip is for you! Remember: fruit is high in nutrients and fiber. Because of this, whole fruit is processed more slowly by the body than added sugars. This means you experience a smaller blood sugar spike, which - combined with the nutrients - makes fruit a healthier choice than dessert. But because it’s sweet, it can also help you tackle your sweet tooth! If you need a little extra something, consider a mix of fruit, nuts, and a few dark chocolate chips. (Note that this all applies to whole fruits. Packaged fruits, particularly those preserved in syrups, are often loaded with added sugars!)
- Learn to read labels. We know, we know - reading labels is not fun. But it’s extremely important when cutting down on sugar. That’s because there are dozens of names for added sugars, and they’re hiding in food labels! Fortunately, thanks to new FDA rules, many labels now have to show the exact amount of added sugars. Still, knowing how to identify added sugars is very helpful, and will help you choose food products - particularly sauces and dressings - with lower sugar contents. (Just don’t forget that dairy and fruit always contain some natural sugars!)
- Use substitutes and reduce sugar in recipes. There are many sugar substitutes that you can use in the kitchen. If you’re cooking, you can use extracts instead of sugar in your recipes (ex. Almond, vanilla, or lemon flavors). You can also use spices instead of sugar to enhance the flavor of your meal (ex. ginger, allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg). You can use unsweetened products in the place of their normal counterparts (ex. applesauce). Finally, you can try to halve the amount of sugar a recipe calls for - often, you won’t notice the difference!
- Minimize your alcohol intake. Many popular alcoholic beverages are sweetened with soda, juice, honey, sugar or agave. Because of this - and the other health issues associated with alcohol - it’s best to drink your favorite cocktails in moderation.
- Beware of “health” products. Many food items that sound healthy really aren’t. Smoothies, for example, often contain juices or dairy products with added sugars. And low-fat products, which sound appealing, often contain more added sugars! So instead of trusting the latest health product, focus on enjoying fresh, whole ingredients in your food. The more whole foods you eat, the lower your sugar intake will be!
Why the Work is Worth the Effort
Cutting back on sugar can take effort and practice. But it’s worth it. With the average American eating more than twice the recommended amount of added sugar per day, addressing our sugar intake is one of the easiest ways we can address our health needs - not to mention, support weight loss efforts! So go ahead and begin using the tips we’ve shared above, one by one. Eventually, you’ll find yourself enjoying a diet based on whole foods - rather than highly processed alternatives - and fully controlling your sugar intake.
Still have questions about weight loss? Struggling to tackle your cravings and sugar intake? Consider making an appointment to meet with our team! Right Weight Center is a physician-directed medical weight loss program that offers affordable help. We provide straightforward weight loss solutions that make it easier to change your diet and exercise habits. Combined with a healthy lifestyle, our solutions can help people achieve their weight loss goals. With our board-certified staff, custom plans and FDA approved tools, our team can provide the advice and tools you need to achieve your weight loss goals.