Originally written for The Washington Post, December, 8th, 2016
It would be a sad state if the only solution to optimal health were to cut out all sugar. To avoid the birthday cake, milkshake, ice cream and the oh-so-perfect chocolate chip cookie would be a true shame.
Yet we hear so much about the need to decrease added sugars. Research strongly indicates that sugar consumption is associated with excess body weight and Type 2 diabetes.
The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that Americans consume no more than 10 percent of total calories in the form of added sugars. At 2,000 calories a day, that’s 200 calories from added sugar. There are 16 calories in one teaspoon of sugar, so that works out to 12 teaspoons a day.
Let’s be clear what we’re talking about: According to the Food and Drug Administration, “Added sugars are sugars added during the processing of foods, including sugars, syrups, caloric sweeteners and naturally occurring sugars that are isolated from a whole food and concentrated so that sugar is the primary component (e.g., fruit juice concentrates).”
And, according to the advisory committee, nearly 50 percent of our added sugar is from sugar-sweetened beverages: soda, fruit punch, sports and energy drinks, or souped-up coffees and teas.
There’s another reason to focus on beverages. You can chug some soda or juice a lot more quickly than you can eat a cookie or candy. Also, when you drink something, it’s absorbed very quickly into the bloodstream. If you drink something with a high sugar content, blood sugar will spike quickly. A simple glass of juice can cause the body to go into a quite a metabolic whirl.
I encourage taking ownership of the sugar you consume. You should be aware of what foods have added sugar so you can make informed decisions. If you are mindful of the sugar in beverages and make an effort to decrease intake, you will be able to enjoy sweets and treats when you want them without seriously causing risk to your health.
Let’s take a look at some common beverages and their sugar content.
One 12-ounce can has nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar. If you crave soda, I suggest pouring a small serving (two to four ounces) on occasion, and savoring each sip. Really, sip it. Many people have switched to diet soda, but there’s a catch: Scientific studies are finding that artificial “sugar-free” sweeteners seem to have damaging effects on the body, such as promoting abdominal fat and obesity. So whether you’re drinking regular or diet, watch the portion size and view soda as a dessert to enjoy occasionally.
Just 12 ounces of orange juice, even if it’s from 100 percent fruit, has just over eight teaspoons of sugar. That’s a lot of sugar in one glass. So try to drink less of it. If you buy smaller containers or simply buy juice less often, you will drink less. Out of sight, out of mind! Start watering it down. Pour three-quarters of the glass and fill the rest with water or bubbly water. Put slices of fruit in the mix to add flavor.
These drinks were created for a specific reason: to support athletes performing sustained aerobic exercise who need to replenish salt, water and sugar for peak performance. But many people drink sports drinks all day long, and it has nothing to do with their athletic performance. For the athletes out there, decide whether the drink meets your needs. Measure sweat rate, notice your urine color, and decide if you need more or less sugar, salt and water. It can take an athlete an entire season to find the right mix, but it’s worth it, as proper hydration and electrolytes are essential to performance. Twelve ounces of traditional sports drink contains just over five teaspoons of sugar.
There are countless fantastic teas out there that are full of flavor — some naturally sweet, without any added sugar. There are herbal teas that are berry-, citrus-, mint- or fruit-flavored, and many black teas with a sweet and flavorful twist. If you are a traditional tea-drinker and you put several spoonfuls of sugar in the cup, notice how many teaspoons you use. Then consider adding less. Keep decreasing the content over time (perhaps months). You will notice how your palate shifts and the body adjusts to less sweetness. And if you are drinking tea products in cans and bottles, read the ingredients! Choose tea without any added sugar; then, if you must, add some sugar yourself. Take ownership of how much sugar you drink.
I love my coffee and happily imbibe it daily. But there’s nothing in my cup but coffee. No sugar. Many of us love coffee not for the taste, the ritual or the caffeine kick, but for the sugar rush that comes with it. Either we are adding several spoons of sugar on our own, or we are frequenting coffee shops that add loads of syrups and sweeteners. Many mochas, flavored lattes and other coffee drinks have at least five teaspoons of added sugar. Step one, as always, is to be aware. How much sugar is in those coffee drinks? How much sugar do you add yourself? If you’re drinking your coffee only for the sugar, then you might be better off having a dessert instead.
Cow’s milk has naturally occurring sugar (lactose). Where things get tricky is when sugar is added to milk, which happens, especially to nondairy milk. If you go to the market and look for the “original” flavor of most nondairy milks, you will find added sugar in their ingredients and added sugars on their labels. Most products offer an “unsweetened” option. Choose that, and then decide if it needs sweetener. Also, watch out for all the flavored milks out there — vanilla, pumpkin spice, chocolate, coffee — as most of those have additional sugar.
Again, are you drinking the alcohol for the alcohol, or for the sugar boost? Some cocktails have so much sugar that they are like liquid candy. My suggestion: Enjoy alcohol for the taste, buzz, social experience and not the sugar high. Separate them. Wine and beer have no added sugar; neither does hard alcohol on the rocks or neat. Cocktails can add a fruit squeeze, a twist or some bitters for some healthy flavor. You may be amazed at how much less alcohol you drink when you decrease the sugar content!
Take a moment and start to notice how many teaspoons of sugar you have in a day. Read the ingredients in addition to the label to see whether sugar is added to the drinks and foods you are consuming. Then decide if you want to make a change and decrease your total intake. Take ownership of your decisions and choices rather than mindlessly consuming sugar.