Rules For Healthy Eating: Cutting Added Sugars

Sugar is sweet, but all that extra sugar comes at a cost to our health.


Can you lose weight on a diet made up mostly of fruit or other foods high in sugar? The short answer is yes. In fact, you can probably lose weight on almost any diet if the total number of calories you eat during the day is less than the number of calories you burn off. Make no mistake. That doesn’t mean you should eat a diet high in sugar or that it’s healthy for you. As we learned in “Rules For Healthy Eating: Start With A Balanced Diet” we already know that eating only certain foods to lose weight poses a potential for certain health risks. Today, we dig a little deeper and look at the special risks associated with eating too much added sugar.


Eating that orange pulp is good for you.

This orange contains the natural sugar fructose.

What is added sugar? Added sugar is sugar in any form that isn’t already a part of a food. For example, the “lactose” in milk and other dairy products is a natural sugar as is the “fructose” in fruit. However, when talking about manufactured or processed foods even these natural forms of sugar are sometimes used as added sugars. For example, a granola bar may have blueberries in it and then be sweetened with some more processed version of fructose, not to mention plain sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.


Another example of a product containing added sugar could be the “fruit” juice you buy in a store. One might think that as it’s labeled a “fruit drink” it’s all derived from fruit. In truth, many juice drinks contain some fruit, but the content can be minimal—say 10% fruit. The rest is generally added sugar in a variety of forms and water. Soda or pop (depending on your preference) is yet another example of a beverage containing added sugar, only this time it’s usually all added sugar (unless it’s a sugar-free variety). Of course, cookies, cakes, desserts and the like all have lots of added sugars.


Molasses, honey, corn syrup, agave nectar: They're all sugar.

Sugar doesn't always look like sugar. It comes in many different forms.

Added sugars come in many different forms. You might see the word “sugar” on a food label or you might see syrup, as in high-fructose corn syrup or rice syrup. You might also see the word juice, as in evaporated cane juice. Or you might see more natural variations of sugar like honey, molasses or agave nectar. For the most part, they’re all just various forms of the same thing—sugar.


Why should you care about added sugar? By itself sugar isn’t all bad. It certainly helps some foods taste better and can reduce the acidity of others. Yet adding sugar to foods does little more than add calories to our diet and there’s the rub. As we learned in “Burning Fat: Weight Loss And Exercise”  each of us (depending on our age, weight, height sex and level of physical activity) will only burn up a set amount of calories per day. If we eat fewer calories than we burn up our bodies get the additional energy we need from our fat stores. That means we lose a little weight. If we eat more calories than we burn up we add to our fat stores. That results in weight gain. Thus, other than getting more exercise, cutting extra sugar out of our diet is one of the best means we have at our disposal to lose weight as it results in eating far fewer calories.


When I'm hungry I crave sugary snacks.

Here's some sugar cleverly disguised as a delicious cinnamon roll. When you're hungry it's tough to resist choices that scream, "Eat me!"

Sadly, just because cutting out sugar is one of the best means for losing weight, doesn’t make it easy. The truth is we love sugar, we get hungry, and when we get hungry we sense an “energy deficit” on the horizon. Soon all our internal warning alarms go off. Our bodies know that unless we eat food containing quick, convertible energy, it’ll take more work to satisfy that perceived deficit or we’ll have to break into the bank (i.e. our fat stores). Since sugar in its various forms is the easiest food for the body to process we get hit with a craving: Something like, “Must eat cookie now!” Unfortunately, though it temporarily satisfies the calorie deficit, a cookie made with white sugar, white flour and butter has little real nutritional value.


This is where the story gets a little more complicated. Added sugars spike the amount of sugar in blood—something we call blood glucose or blood sugar. As the sugar is rapidly processed it translates to a rush of energy. We feel better, but the feeling lasts only a short time unless we continually bring more fuel into the system. After the rush, our energy levels drop. This is why some foods are better for us to eat than others—it takes a longer time to process them and we avoid that sugar high.


Eating whole grains is best.

Are you eating complex carbs? Here's a healthier option: Whole grain bread.

Sugars are actually just one form of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates actually come in several different forms, but to keep matters simple we usually only talk about carbohydrates as simple or complex compounds. Now, we could make a generalization here and say simple “carbs” are easier for the body to break down and convert to energy than complex carbs. However, some simple carbs like fructose are digested slowly and some complex carbs (think starches like white rice) are digested rapidly. As a result, when we go to talk about the best foods to eat, what we really want to know is which simple or complex carbs we should eat more of and which ones we should avoid.


That's a lot of sugar.

Americans would do well to consume much less sugar.

Thankfully, the work of deciding on the best type and quantity of carbs to eat is largely done. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes general guidelines for the types, quantity and variety of foods we should eat on a daily basis. And more important to the issue at hand, a number of health based organizations provide information regarding suggested sugar consumption. For example, “The American Heart Association recommends that no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance should come from added sugars. For most American women, this is no more than 100 calories per day and no more than 150 per day for men (or about 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons a day for men).” (Source: Mayo Clinic)



Putting it all together and understanding that almost any processed food you buy at the store or many of the foods prepared for you at restaurants contain added sugar it’s easy to see why Americans are eating far more sugar than we should. The result, of course, shows up on our waistlines.


How To Cut Back On Added Sugars


Knowing we’re eating too much added sugar is one thing. Knowing how to cut back is another. What’s the best way to cut back? Start by checking out the 10 tips below:


Reading food labels.

Check labels. Look for total sugar, saturated fat, dietary fiber and protein.

(1) Read food labels. If you aren’t doing it yet, it may be time to start reading those labels manufacturers are forced to put on their packaging. They provide valuable information about a products nutritional content. Of particular interest here is the amount of added sugar. Some obvious foods to avoid are soda, cookies, cakes and other desserts. Some foods that may shock you as you look for added sugar are so-called “low fat” yogurts or “healthy” or “natural” granola bars. Unfortunately, there’s virtually no meaning to words like healthy or natural as far as the food industry is concerned. Unless you determine the total grams of sugar in different foods you really have no basis to determine which is the better option for cutting sugar. Remember, the goal isn’t to eliminate all sugar, but to cut back on it much added sugar as possible. For more information on how to read food labels see the American Heart Association’s article here.


(2) Eat fruits not sweets. We mentioned fructose takes longer to digest than other simple carbs. For that reason, substitute fruit in place of cookies, cakes and the like wherever you can. You’ll get some of that sweet flavor you crave, and you’ll be adding important vitamins, phyto-nutrients and fiber. To make certain you’re avoiding added sugars and getting all the nutrients you need stick to whole fruit rather than fruit drinks or processed fruit.


Cooking is fun. Makecooking part of your day.

When you make food from scratch you know what's in it. That means you can cut back on unhealthy added sugars.

(3) Make your own food from scratch. If you make your own food you’ll know what’s in it. If you eat pre-packaged and pre-processed foods it’s almost a given you’ll be getting more bad fats and added sugars than you need. Try not to think of cooking as a chore. Think of it as an art. Don’t you like creating things? Why not create delicious, healthy meals without the added sugars. You’ll feel great knowing you’re eating a healthier diet and the possibilities are endless.


These carrots make a tasty snack.

Some healthy foods are naturally sweet. Have plenty of healthy options on hand.

(4) Have healthy snacks readily available. One of the main reasons we’re tempted by sugary foods is they’re so commonplace. This implies that if we make healthy foods more accessible we’ll be more likely to fill up on the things that actually do us some good. Healthy snacks might include fruit slices, cut up veggies, nuts or popcorn. Make sure to stock the pantry and refrigerator appropriately.



Check food labels carefully.

When looking at food labels also check the list of ingredients. Some foods contain other foods that contain sugar, like this brownie mix which contains chocolate chips.


(5) Keep high sugar and added sugar foods out of reach. This goes hand in hand with our last recommendation, but the best way to avoid lots of extra sugar is not have it around in the first place. That means put the foods you must keep out of reach. It also means being more picky as a shopper so you end up with better choices to select from at home.



Make more food from scratch.

Try to cut out products containing corn syrup. Corn syrup is just liquid sugar. Other than calories there's no nutritional value.

(6) Skip soda, and most juice drinks. Soda (pop) is typically loaded down with sugar. If you must drink it, buy the “sugar-free” varieties. As noted above, most juice drinks are also loaded down with extra sugars. If you’re going to drink juice check the label and make sure you’re getting the real thing. The label should say “Made from 100% real juice.” Better yet, skip the juice in favor of the fruit which includes more nutrients and fiber. Still thirsty? Try drinking water or teas instead.


Sometimes I need help waking up in the morning. My coffee helps.

Before asking for that next coffee drink, find out how much sugar is really in your favorite flavored syrup.

(7) Make candy a special treat, not a casual one. This is tough if candy is easily available so start by keeping it out of sight and reach. Next, don’t try to cut yourself off completely. It’s much easier to find the smallest bite-sized candy you prefer and reward yourself when you stick to your diet. Or say you like M & M’s. Why not eat the ones containing peanuts instead of the ones that are all sugar and chocolate and get some of the nutritional benefit the nuts provide. Of course, it will help to limit your reward to a single serving size. Now, as you go to eat your treat take your time with it. Nibble if you can. You want to savor the moment.


Some foods are almost impossible to resist.

This cake may be irresistible, but try eating less. Don't gulp down treats like these, take small bites and savor them.

(8) Cut down on portion sizes. Going to a birthday party? Is the host or hostess offering cookies or a slice of cake? When your host or hostess insists, don’t be afraid to tell them you’re trying to cut back. Or if you do decide you’d like a taste, ask for a very thin slice or share your piece with a partner. There’s also nothing that says you need to eat the whole thing. Don’t be afraid to seem rude, either. It’s your health, right? If you’re done eating after a bite or two push your plate out of reach or immediately pick it up and drop it off near the kitchen sink. No need to tempt fate.


(9) Don’t go cold turkey. Cut back. Cutting out all added sugar or sugary snacks isn’t necessary and is much harder than cutting back. We all like to try delicious food. We all enjoy sweets. Why make cutting back on sugar a black and white decision? A little sugar here or there is fine. What’s more important is to limit the overall intake and use your daily allotted calories for the foods more important to your overall nutritional needs. Start by using a little less. Put one teaspoon in your coffee instead of two. Use less than a recipe calls for and see how it tastes. Over time, you may discover that food often tastes better without all that extra sugar.


This bread is going to be good.

I enjoy kneading bread. This recipe calls for whole grains, like whole wheat, oat flour and flax. Good stuff!

(10) Eat more whole grains and fiber, less starch and sugar. Key for any successful effort to cut back on sugar will be substituting other foods to avoid that feeling of hunger. An empty stomach is a stomach that will start craving food. Keep it fuller longer by upping the amount of “whole” grains and fiber in your meals. Note: Manufacturer’s are keen to put words like “multi-grain” or “wheat” on their labels but unless it says “whole” in front of the grain it’s not whole grain.


For more information on sugar see our post, “Sugar, Sugar, Honey, Honey”.


As important as it is to cut back on sugar, it isn’t the only play you can make in the game of dieting. Next up in our “Real Help With Weight Loss” series: Eating the right oils.

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