When’s the last time you stood in the kitchen and poured yourself a nice bowl of sugar — just sugar — as a meal? Chances are high that you never have. (And if you have, well, we all have bad days.) But without realizing it, most of us are chowing down on a whole lot of sugar, and some of us even have a sugar addiction.
In fact, the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar daily, or 70 lbs. of sugar a year. (1) And those with a real sweet tooth might be topping 30 teaspoons a day — and that’s before accounting for any naturally occurring sugars, like those found in fruits. For comparison, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 150 calories a day come from added sugar; that’s about 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. (2)
That’s why the 2015–2016 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is so critical. Jointly released every five years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the guidelines provide evidence-based food and beverage recommendations for Americans over 2 years old to promote health, prevent chronic disease, and aid people in reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
And the latest edition has one glaring change. For the first time ever, the guidelines recommend Americans reduce sugar to no more than 10 percent of their daily caloric intake. On a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 12 teaspoons. It’s a move by the government that underscores how dangerous to our diets added sugar has become.
Why This Recommendation Matters
For those of us who closely follow health and nutrition, government recommendations are often taken with a grain of salt. After all, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention still believes that saturated fats, like those found in quality meats, butter and cheese, cause heart disease, even though science can now prove that isn’t true. (3) (4)
Government recommendations also say whole grains should be a major part of an American’s diet. Unfortunately, that’s one of the biggest nutrition lies. In many bodies, gluten causes inflammation, which can lead to chronic disease and conditions. It also can cause a spike in insulin, which can disrupt your body’s hormonal balance. That’s why I recommend that, when you want to eat grains, you choose sprouted, fermented or gluten-free grains instead.
So why should we give credence to this latest government recommendation to reduce sugar? Because in this case, there isn’t a middle ground — the proof is indisputable.
Not as Sweet as It Looks: Why Sugar is So Dangerous
Let’s be clear: The new guidelines aren’t demonizing natural sugars, which are found in foods like fruit and milk. These are broken down and converted into energy by our bodies, something we most definitely need. It’s targeting the overconsumption of added sugars, those that aren’t found naturally in foods and are added in later. There are the obvious culprits, of course: soda, candy, ice cream.
But then there are the added sugars in foods most of us don’t expect: a loaf of bread, condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce, flavored yogurts, fruit juices and even jarred pasta sauce.
When you add all these hidden sugar bombs up, that’s a whole lot of sugar.
It wasn’t always like this, either. In 1822, the average American consumed 45 grams of sugar every five days, or what you’d find in one 12-ounce soda bottle. Today, 765 grams of sugar each day. The prevalence of processed and low-fat foods mean we’re consuming more sugar than ever before. It also matters more than ever.
Children, for instance, average 32 teaspoons of sugar a day. (5) And all that sugar has health repercussions. Skyrocketing type 2 diabetes rates to an increase in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease are all being linked back to too much sugar. In fact, quite a few ailments have sugar to blame. (6) The substance can:
- Damage your heart
- Unfairly target your belly (as long as sugar’s around, that pooch isn’t going anywhere)
- Cause a decline in cognitive brain health
- Promote obesity in the body
- Affect cancer cell production
And while excessive sugar can lead to weight gain, you might be at a healthy weight and still have sugar wreaking havoc on your body.
In fact, one study that followed participants over the course of 15 years found that those who consumed 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar were twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who kept sugar to less than 10 percent of their caloric intake. (7) Overall, the odds of dying from heart disease rose as sugar intake did, no matter a person’s age, sex, physical activity level or body mass index.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: How to Kick Added Sugar Out for Good
If you’re ready to say goodbye to all that extra sugar and significantly reduce sugar, here’s your action plan.
1. Learn your measurements and read labels
Products with nutrition labels all have sugar counts, but it’s hard to know what’s a lot. Instead, remember that 4 calories of sugar equals 1 gram, and 4 grams of sugar is the equivalent to 1 teaspoon. You want to aim for less than 36 grams of sugar, or 9 teaspoons, a day.
This watermelon and strawberry one-serving Greek yogurt by Chobani, for example, has 17 grams of sugar in it. That means 68 of its 133 calories come from sugar, and it’s why Greek yogurt nutrition is mostly bankrupt. Eating this will set you back a bit more than 4 teaspoons of sugar. Likewise, a blueberry scone from Starbucks contains 20 grams of sugar, also known as 5 teaspoons of added sugar and 80 calories from sugar.
2. Beware of sugar’s alter egos
What’s in a name? A whole lot when it comes to sugar. See, it’s easy to find “sugar” listed in the ingredients list. But food companies are smart; they’ll give different names to sugar, making it harder to find. One rule of thumb to find these hidden sugars is that any ingredient ending in “ose” is a type of sugar.
Don’t be fooled by more “natural-sounding” names either. Sweeteners like cane juice, beet sugar, fruit juice, rice syrup and molasses are still types of sugar. Check out their place in the ingredients, list, too. The higher up an ingredient is on the list, the more of it is included in a product.
3. Eat processed foods sparingly
You probably already stay away from packaged cookies and big brand sweets. But those pesky sugars are lurking everywhere, including in many processed foods. Instead of buying jarred pasta sauce, for instance, try making a big batch on a weekend and freezing some to have on hand in a pinch. And while you might not have time to bake your own bread, read labels to avoid brands that add sugars or try purchasing from a local bakery, where you can ask questions, instead.
4. Avoid sugary versions of the real thing
Sure, fruit juice tastes good, but you know what else tastes good? The actual fruit. Don’t waste empty calories on sweetened-up versions of the real thing.
And if you’re prone to choosing low-fat versions of foods, beware. Low-fat diets are risky and when it comes to sugar, they pack it in. When manufacturers take out the natural fat from products like milk or cheese, they’re also removing a lot of its flavor. So sugar gets added back in to make up for what you’re losing. There’s a reason nature uses fat in foods — trust it!
Breaking up with sugar isn’t easy. It can be more addictive than cocaine. (8) But you can wean your body and taste buds away from the substance. While the first few initial days might be difficult to reduce sugar as you experience cravings and withdrawals, you’ll soon be living a naturally sweet life.