Scientists have been looking at the role sugar plays in metabolic syndrome – a combination of factors – elevated blood sugar and triglycerides, high blood pressure and low “good” cholesterol levels – that can lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and liver impairment. It’s been on the rise and research is pointing to an increase in daily consumption of sugar as one of the primary reasons.
Sugar isn’t bad per se, but like everything else, it’s not good if you have too much. And thanks to all the added sugars in most processed foods and the popularity of sodas and sports drinks, it’s easy to consume too much without even realizing it. Here’s a run-down on the facts, some of the latest research and tips for keeping tabs on your sugar intake.
What Sugar Does
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that provides your body’s cells with fuel. When you eat sugar the hormone insulin kicks in to “push” the sugar to the cells and maintain an ideal balance of sugar in the blood. But if you’re constantly eating sugar, the insulin releasing mechanism gets “overworked” causing too much sugar in the blood that can’t be used by your cells and ends up being stored as fat.
While the whole process is more complex, suffice it to say that besides the extra calories, other body functions need to work harder or become impaired by messing up the sugar conversion process when you consume large amounts of sugar.
There are two types of sugar: Refined – like those you use in baking, add to drinks and added to sodas and processed foods and Naturally Occurring – sugars found in fruits, vegetables and milk. Your body will process sugar from either source the same way. But the sugars in whole foods are not in isolation as refined sugar often is. The combination of naturally occurring sugars with other nutrients in foods help the body process them efficiently and often slower than refined sugars.
How Much Do You Need?
From all sources, no more than 50 grams is recommended – 30 grams if you’re trying to lose weight.
But it might be easier to keep track of added sugars. The list below (from the American Heart Association) gives the recommended amounts of added sugars per day – low enough not to cause harm when eaten in addition to the naturally occurring sugars in the rest of your diet.
Adult Women: 6 teaspoons/24 grams
Adult Men: 9 teaspoons/36 grams
Under 18 years: 3-6 teaspoons/12-24 grams (younger children less/older children more)
Many processed foods, sodas and sports/juice drinks contain nearly or more than the daily recommended amount of added sugars. An average 12 ounce soda for example, contains 32-36 grams of sugar.
To compare, naturally occurring sugars in milk and most fresh fruits contain between 5 – 14 grams of sugar per serving. As with all things, variety and moderation are important. A bananas or serving of grapes – both on higher sugar scale – are only problematic if those are the only fruits you eat.
The idea of getting the taste of sugar with no calories or insulin spikes sounds like a perfect solution for those of us with a sweet tooth. But the jury is out with red flags going up. New research shows that the body may be confused by these ingredients upsetting normal metabolic processes. Even “natural” sugar substitutes are getting a second look. Agave, for example, while lower in actual grams of sugar, is higher in a certain type – fructose – which has recently been called out for the damage it can do to the liver.
— If you’re going to use sugar, make it real. Pure cane, raw or brown sugar is a decent choice (about 4.2 grams per teaspoon) but consider buying sugar cubes (equal to one half teaspoon) to “portion control” adding sugar to drinks. Or at least keep a real measuring teaspoon near the sugar bowl. By the way, raw or brown sugar aren’t healthier than refined white sugar but they may be a bit sweeter tasting so that you might need less.
— Raw honey is another option but per teaspoon actually has more sugar that sugar (5.6 grams vs 4.2 grams in sugar). However, honey has anti-bacterial properties and since the composition of the sugars is different than cane sugar, it takes your body a little longer to break it down.
— Fruit and fruit or vegetable purees (make them yourself since commercial ones often contain added sugars!) can be used to sweeten some foods and drinks. Use “sweeter” fruits like bananas, kiwis, apples or grapes. Avoid dried fruits which have high concentrations of sugar. Either add slices to drinks or mash them up and use a topping, mix in drinks or substitute for sugar in baked goods. (See our post on using purees for baking and cooking here – http://yofreesamples.com/money-saving-blog/using-purees-cooking-baking/)
— Read labels! Under carbohydrates, the number of grams of sugar should be listed. But look at the serving size first. Manufacturers have always underestimated typical portion sizes and now some of them are “down-sizing” portion sizes even more. Some cans of soda, for example, are 2 servings – not one so if one serving has 20 grams of sugar, the whole can – which is what you’ll likely drink – contains 40 grams.
— Choose dark chocolate your candy of choice. A serving of most dark chocolate (40 grams in the 70% or above range – and watch the flavorings…) usually contains less than 15 of sugar (plus quite a bit of fiber and healthy flavonols) so get used to that to satisfy your candy craving. Milk chocolate, “mixed” ingredient candy bars, chewy or lozenge type candies have double, triple or even more the amount of sugar – and it’s usually the worst kind (high fructose corn syrup).
— Skip canned fruits and choose fresh or frozen (without added sugar, naturally) to avoid the sugary syrup most are packed in if you can’t find versions canned without it. If cost is an issue (though canned fruits aren’t that cheap!) discard the syrup and rinse the fruit in water to remove some of the extra sugar.
— When making your own baked goods, ice creams or other sweet desserts, use less sugar than the recipe asks for. You’d be surprised at how little you might need. I use half the sugar called for in all my pies, for example, and no one notices – and I still get lots of compliments.
For more information, check out some of the sources we used for this post: