“Sweeeet!” Americans love it! All of us are born with sweet-appreciating taste buds, making sugary treats taste so good. Long ago, this probably increased survival by steering ancient human beings away from bitter plants that were toxic. But how well is that serving us today?
These days, in our modern world of quick, easy processed foods, the ready supply of highly palatable sweet foods is a poor match for our biology. A “sweet tooth” is no longer a survival mechanism. In fact, the effect is quite the opposite, raising the risk of tooth decay, obesity, poor blood sugar control, higher triglyceride levels, lower HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind), and heart disease. Some experts are beginning to argue that fructose contained in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup may actually be responsible for many of these health problems. A recent article summarizes the evidence for the claims.
The sugars of most concern for health are added sugars, not those sugars that naturally occur in food. Sugar can be added in many forms during the manufacturing process. Many sweetened foods and beverages have little or no fiber and few nutrients. On the other hand, whole foods in their natural form offer many nutritional benefits. Fruits, vegetables, milk, and some grains contain natural sugars, mostly in the form of fructose or lactose, along with many health promoting benefits.
Current health recommendations call for a limit of about 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day for women and no more than 10 teaspoons a day for men. Does that sound like a lot? You might be surprised how quickly it adds up! One 12-ounce can of regular soda contains about 10 teaspoons.
A teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams and has about 15 calories. This will help you interpret the food labels, which list sugar in grams. While it is sometimes difficult to determine how much sugar is added to processed foods – manufacturers are not required to separate out the natural sugars from the added sugars on the label – there are guidelines that can help. Cutting down on concentrated sweets like soda, candy, ice cream, and baked goods will help to reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet, even if you do not know exactly how much you are consuming.
Eliminating all sweets is not usually necessary or realistic for most people. The goal of reducing added sugars in general is a good beginning. If you are someone who drinks several cans of soda every day, that is a great place to start, by replacing some or all of the soda with water. Finding healthier substitutes for sweet treats, or reducing the portion sizes or frequency of indulgences, can help make the transition easier. Progress, not perfection, is a good goal for change.
For a quick muffin recipe with only about one teaspoon of added sugar per muffin, try Cranberry Walnut Corn Muffins (adapted from a recipe in Healthy Cooking magazine).