We've been warned many times that high quantities of sugar can be dangerous and we all need to beware of added sugars in particular. The Journal of the American Medical Association says that individuals who have a diet that is high in sugar and calories are more at risk for developing cardiovascular disease as well as a whole list of other health problems including diabetes, dementia and even liver disease. Consuming too much sugar has made obesity an epidemic not only in the United States but in other rapidly developing countries.
Some sugars are unavoidable even in healthy foods but you should make an effort to limit the amount of sugar you intake and be aware of "hidden sugars". We're all told to eat fruits and vegetables, but their sugar content should be accounted for. Did you know that there are fruits that are very high in sugar? Bananas, figs, grapes and mangos are listed as having the highest amount of sugar with up to 12 grams for a 3 ounce serving. Are there really vegetables with high sugar content? Yes! Beets, corn, peas and potatoes all contain sugar.
The World Health Organization recommends limiting sugar consumption to only 5% of daily discretionary calories. In a typical 2,000 calorie a day diet (some need more, some need less calories depending on their build and dietary restrictions) that adds up to about 6 teaspoons of sugar daily, which seems like more than enough. So what can you do to consciously limit your sugar intake? Become a label reader. Virtually every can, box or bag of food sold in a supermarket today has a Nutritional Facts Label. When you start to look at the label, you will see the calories, calories from fat, sodium, etc. Some ingredient lists mask the amount of sugar in a product. To avoid having "sugar" as the first ingredient, food manufacturers may use multiple forms of sugar – each with a different name. By using this tactic, sugars are represented separately in smaller amounts, which make it more difficult for the consumer to determine how much overall sugar is in a product.
Pay attention to the "serving size" and "serving per container" portion of the label. For instance, if a serving size is ½ cup and you've eaten a cup, you basically doubled the total amount of sugar for that serving! You might be happy that you've taken in 10% or 20% of your daily intake of vitamins with that serving but when you read that you've taken in 100% of your sugars with just one meal it's a pretty sobering thought. Bottom line: take time to read the labels as you shop. Don't assume if something says "healthy" or "organic" or "nutritious" that it really is.
When you think about it, the foods that have added sugars are mostly obvious. What about the "hidden" sugars - the ones you intake without really being aware of them getting into your diet? Do you ever reach for an energy drink to help you get through your day? Besides caffeine, they contain very high amounts of sugar, as much as 29 grams of sugar in a small can or bottle.
Want to add fruit as a healthy snack? Great, but stick to fruits that are low in sugar such as apples, berries, grapefruit, peaches and pineapple. Bananas, figs and grapes can have as much sugar as a soda. Avoid dried fruit because the sugar content is very high. Rather than reaching for a glass of orange juice, eat an orange instead. A glass of orange juice can use up the entire recommended allotment of added sugars in just one serving.
Be careful when you buy canned fruits because they can be packaged in juices made of sugars and calories. Choose canned fruit packed in its own juice or in water instead. Fresh fruits make the most sense when it comes to nutritional value. Most vegetables are pretty healthy and low in sugar, except corn, peas, and potatoes.
Eating out is one of the toughest situations when it comes to eating healthy. Most restaurants load their foods with high amounts of sugar so that it will taste better. They don't list the ingredients in their menus and they don't tell you how your meal is prepared unless you ask. Usually the servers don't mind sharing the ingredient information and it only takes a moment. You can take it a step further by asking for dressings and sauces on the side. That will really cut down on calories and sugar intake. Chain restaurants and fast food places commonly post the ingredients they use. Needless to say, food you prepare yourself will always trump pre-packaged foods or meals eaten in restaurants.
Finally, remember that you can eat healthy low sugar foods, but be careful not to load them with high in sugar ingredients. Salad is great, but what's in the salad dressing and are you using more than the recommended amount? Granola bars seem healthy, but there's more sugar in them than most realize. Try trail mix instead. Lean meats are fine, but barbeque sauce and other condiments are generally packed with sugar. Even certain breads that say "healthy" or "multigrain" can contain too much sugar. How do you know? Read the label!
The best news of all is once you start getting used to foods with lowered sugar content is that they will taste quite good and you will feel much healthier overall. Your taste buds adjust and over time you will recognize foods that are high in sugar because they will taste different and may be less pleasing. Overall, foods that are low in sugar are better for your heart, your waistline, and your general health. A little bit of extra work can go a long way!
Authored by Dr. Bob Goldstone, M.D.
The information contained on this page is not intended to provide medical advice, which should be obtained directly from your physician.