Sure, we’ve all got our guilty pleasures when it comes to satisfying our sweet tooth; some reach for cookies, while others choose ice cream or chocolate bars. Although treating yourself to sugary foods is okay in moderation, most people are consuming more sugar than they realize, even when they haven’t indulged in sweets. In fact, while the American Heart Association advises limiting added sugar consumption to 10% or less of our daily caloric intake, the average American consumes added sugar that makes up closer to 15% of daily calories. You may be thinking that you’re not one of these people because you don’t eat a lot of candy, cakes or pastries, but did you know that added sugars are often found in foods that aren’t sweet like breads, cured meats, and dressings? Believe it or not, added sugar is found in 74% of all packaged foods in our supermarkets!
So, what exactly is added sugar? Added sugar can be defined as the additional sweeteners that are incorporated into processed foods during production to enhance flavor and extend shelf-life. More simply, it’s the type of sugar that does not occur naturally, as it does in foods like bananas, sweet potatoes or tomatoes.
In terms of health, excess added sugar can lead to fat accumulation, and thus, weight gain and obesity. It can also lead to fatty liver disease, elevated blood pressure levels and chronic inflammation, which increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. While high amounts of added sugar can be detrimental to our health, limiting added sugar consumption can have positive impacts. Reducing added sugars in the diet can help to protect your body from said adverse effects, and can also help to:
Improve weight control. Consuming excess sugar means consuming excess calories with low nutritional value. Sugary foods release energy rapidly, which leads to improper fueling of the body and the quick return of hunger. Nutritionally-dense foods that are low in added sugar help us stay full and energized for longer periods of time, which helps prevent unwanted snacking and unplanned weight gain.
Stabilize mood and energy levels. High amounts of added sugar cause spikes in blood sugar that make us feel alert and energized, but they are quickly followed by sugar dips. When this happens, we often feel irritable, apathetic or fatigued.
Enhance skin appearance. The inflammation caused by added sugar consumption is known to lead to skin sagging, wrinkling and aging, and can exacerbate skin conditions such as puffiness, under-eye circles, acne and rosacea.
Manage stress and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Diets that consist of excess added sugar can impair the brain’s ability to respond to stress effectively, leading to feelings of anxiousness, moodiness and depression.
Advance concentration, learning and memory. Diets high in added sugar can disrupt brain cell communication and natural brain waves, leading to weakened cognition, memory formation and decision making.
Control sugar cravings. The brain’s reward pathways respond to added sugar by releasing surges of feel-good hormones that make us feel alert, happy and relaxed. The brain records the memory of these feelings and the pleasurable activity that caused it (eating sugar), and urges us to repeat this behavior. When added sugars are frequently and abundantly consumed, we start to build a tolerance to sugar and crave it more often.
How can added sugar be limited? The only way to be truly sure of the sugar content of foods, we must do a bit of detective work and read nutrition facts labels and ingredients lists carefully. There are a number of other simple and helpful tips to reduce added sugar intake. Here’s how:
Reduce the amount of table sugar, syrup, honey and molasses that you add to foods and beverages like tea, coffee and oatmeal. Sweeten foods like cereal or pancakes with fresh fruit such as blueberries, banana slices or raspberries.
Replace soda with unsweetened sparkling water.
Lessen the amount of sugar called for in baking recipes by one-third or substitute sugar with equal parts unsweetened applesauce.
Enhance foods/beverages with naturally sweet flavors like cinnamon, nutmeg, mint or ginger.
Drain and rinse canned fruit that is stored in syrups before eating.
For additional ideas on how to reduce added sugar consumption check out these tips.
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Written by Stephanie Carlile, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern