Whether you consider yourself to be health-conscious or you’re working toward making more nutritious food choices, striving to eat less sugar is a good idea for most people. Why?
The current US dietary guidelines recommend keeping sugar intake at 10 percent or less of total calories. For an 1800-calorie diet, for example, that’s about 180 calories from sugar, or 45 grams. According to the CDC, the average American adult consumes nearly 70 grams of sugar daily, and the leading sources of sugar are sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts like cakes and cookies, candy, and dairy desserts like ice cream. 1, 2
You know, the obvious stuff.
So you’re opting for water instead of soda, you’re munching on veggies and hummus for your mid-afternoon snack, and you’re skipping desserts. When it comes to sugar, you must be #winning! Right? Um… not so fast.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with some sugar in your diet, but since most women are getting more than what is considered healthful, it’s a good idea to examine where these sneaky sugars are hiding.
Whether you’re reducing your sugar consumption because you want to change your body composition, improve your energy levels, or manage your blood sugar, it may surprise you to learn just how much sugar might still be sneaking into your diet in many food choices typically considered healthier or more nutritious.
The truth is, sugar is everywhere, but not all sugar is created equal.
Technically, sugar is the common name for table sugar, the highly palatable white crystals used for many of our favorite sweet treats. Table sugar consists of glucose and fructose.
However, dietary sugar refers to simple carbohydrates, called monosaccharides and disaccharides in biochemistry. They are the building blocks of all carbohydrates.
Common monosaccharides (carbohydrates composed of single sugar/saccharide molecules) include glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Glucose is the most common type of simple sugar and the primary form of sugar stored in your body for energy. It’s often referred to as blood sugar in humans, or dextrose in food.
Fructose is the next most common sugar, and has quickly become a major sugar consumed in our standard diets today, due to the food industry’s growing use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and alternative sweeteners such as agave (which has an even higher amount of fructose compared to HFCS). Fructose is found mainly in fruits, honey, corn syrup, and table sugar.
Galactose is less likely than glucose or fructose to be found naturally in our diets. Instead, it often combines with glucose to form lactose, often referred to as milk sugar.
The three common disaccharides (carbohydrates composed of two sugar/saccharide molecules) in our diet are sucrose, maltose, and lactose.
Sucrose is formed when glucose and fructose are held together by a special chemical bond, called an alpha bond that our body breaks apart when it goes through the digestive process. Sucrose is found in sugarcane and sugar beets and is refined to make granulated table sugar and powdered sugars. The color can range from white to brown depending on how purified the final sugar product is.
Maltose, or malt sugar, is composed of two glucose units. It is produced from the breakdown of starch, which occurs during the germination of seeds and the production of alcohol.
Lactose, as just mentioned, is a combination of glucose and galactose. Because it contains a different type of chemical bond, called a beta bond, it is hard for some people to digest lactose large quantities. Digestion requires enough of the enzyme lactase in the small intestine.
Now with all this science out of the way, let’s talk about sugar in food.
Naturally-Occurring vs. Added Sugar
It’s important to distinguish between naturally-occurring and added sugars. Naturally-occurring sugars are mostly found in foods in their untouched, unprocessed forms. Foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy all contain naturally-occurring sugars, and are not usually a cause for concern (for weight or health). Even though these foods are a natural source of sugar, they are also packed with beneficial fiber, healthy fats, and protein. Your body benefits a lot more from these foods than from, say, a Snickers bar or a bowl of Fruity Pebbles cereal, which are high in added sugars, like fructose and sucrose.
Most naturally-occurring sugars are found in foods that do not have a nutrition facts label (like raw apples or blueberries). Some foods, however, like plain Greek yogurt do have a nutrition label, and you might freak out when you read that it contains up to 9 grams of sugar (from lactose).
Because nutrition facts labels only tell you the total amount of sugar and don't distinguish between naturally-occurring and added sugars, it's a good idea to also take a look at the ingredients list.
If you see ingredients such as sugar, fructose, cane sugar or juice, sucrose, honey, molasses, maple syrup, fruit juice, brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or agave, you’re looking at added sugar — and that's just a partial list of all the ways added sugar can show up in your food. To get an idea of how much of a difference the added sugar makes to the total, compare the item with an unsweetened variety if available.
Years of research and observation have shown that diets high in simple sugars are linked to greater incidences of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, especially in people who lead a sedentary lifestyle. High sugar intake is also associated with a higher rate of yeast infections in some women.3
However, sugar intake alone is not the root cause of these increased health risks and diseases. A diet high in sugar combined with low protein, vegetable, and unsweetened fluid intake compounds many health risks and the consequences are made worse with inactivity.
Some people find that they feel better and experience fewer or no cravings when they abstain from eating sugar (that is, sweets, foods with added sugars, and foods that are primarily sugar). On the flip side, some people find that moderate consumption of sweets works better for them than complete avoidance for craving control. What works for you? The best answer will come from pay attention to your body and how you feel.
Sugar intake in moderation is not the reason obesity rates are increasing and people are unhealthier. In fact, “normal” sugar intake, such as a small piece of chocolate daily, a (reasonably sized) cookie for dessert, or some fruit salad with lunch, may help some people have better control over sugar cravings. Enjoying a sweet treat when you want it can often help avoid over-consumption. For some, restricting a food or making it completely off-limits often makes that food much harder to resist. 4, 5
Whether you opt for moderation or abstinence when it comes to sugar, there are some sneaky foods you need to know about that often contain much more sugar than you’d expect. These foods will add excess sugar to your diet, even when you’re trying to be as careful as possible and reading labels diligently.
The following six foods and condiments are common sugar pitfalls. If you're watching your sugar intake, do your best to consume them mindfully and in moderation, or avoid them when appropriate.
For many, occasionally unwinding with a nice glass of merlot or cabernet sauvignon after a trying day at work feels like a little slice of heaven. Thankfully, most dry wines only contribute a gram or two of sugar per glass. Sweet wines, a few grams more.
But what if you’re out with for a happy hour with friends, enjoying some cocktails or fun drinks like margaritas or pina coladas? A typical 10-ounce margarita can pack up to 60 grams of sugars, while a 10-oz piña colada can have 70 grams! If you choose one of these fun drinks to celebrate with friends, opting for the “skinny” version if available will shave off a lot of that sugar.
If you’re enjoying bottled beverages, keep in mind that a single bottle of Hard Lemonade has around 30 grams of sugar, while a Hard Cider has around 23 grams.
Looking for low-sugar alcohol options? Dry wines, straight hard liquors (on the rocks or with seltzer), or light, low-carb beers are your best bet.
The occasional indulgence isn’t likely to interfere with most health and fitness goals, but it’s important to remember that alcohol consumption does affect your blood sugar control. Many women will experience dips in their blood sugar concentrations following alcohol intake. This will lead you to crave foods you might not usually eat, which along with the disinhibition that accompanies a single alcoholic beverage, can be a recipe for diet disaster.
As we pointed out above, fruit is a source of naturally-occurring sugars. At Girls Gone Strong, we’re never going to tell you to avoid eating fruit — especially if you’ve substituted fruit for less nutritious options as you work on making dietary changes. But it’s surprising how many people forget that the primary nutrient in fruit is simple sugars. In fact, the total sugar content of some fruits can be just as high as that in some desserts (which is why some people refer to fruit as “nature’s candy”).
Over-consumption of fruits simply “because they’re healthy” is not recommended. Let’s take a look at the bigger picture.
It is well known that fruits offer nutritional benefits. For example, they are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, which help ward off diseases, and many fruits are packed with fiber, which aids in digestion and proper function of the digestive system.
A recently published study showed that in women specifically, a high fruit intake (particularly apples and citrus fruits), as part of an overall healthy diet, was associated with better glucose tolerance, meaning that women who consume fruits each day may have a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. 6 But it will depend on also having a high intake of other healthy foods like low-fat dairy, whole grains, and protein. A woman who eats a lot of fruit with other high-sugar foods is not likely to see the same benefits.
The amount of sugar you get from fruit depends on the fruit you eat. The lowest sugar fruits are fresh berries. A cup of strawberries has only seven grams of sugar. A medium apple has about 23 grams of sugar as does a navel orange, while a medium banana has 15 grams of sugar. A Cutie (or clementine) only has seven grams of sugar, so it’s another good choice for a lower sugar citrus option.
Dried and canned fruit tend to pack a whole lot of sugar for very little volume of fruit. For example, a 100-calorie serving of canned fruit in light syrup or fruit juice can pack close to 25 grams of sugar and the actual serving size isn’t substantial. Dried fruit can be an easy way to add a bit of sweetness to a meal or snack, but it’s important to pay attention to the serving size and look for options with no added sugar. Take raisins, for example. A small box of raisins (1.5 ounces) delivers about 25 grams of sugar, while a mini box (a half-ounce serving) has just 8 grams. When adding raisins to a salad at the salad bar, an extra scoop of raisins could make a big difference — and depending on the dressing you choose, your otherwise healthy salad could end up packing quite a lot of sugar.
A challenge many people face when consuming dried fruit is the volume. Though serving size will be different for fresh and dried fruit, a serving of fresh fruit typically has close to the same amount of sugar as a serving of the same fruit in dried form. For example, a small apple has about 15 grams of sugar, and a serving of dried, unsweetened apple (typically about 1 ounce) has about 16 grams of sugar. However, that fresh apple will not only take a little longer to eat, it offers more volume and contains more water than the dried apple, and will help you feel full and satiated for a longer amount of time.
Natural food bars made with dried fruits and nuts, such as KIND bars and Larabars, are everywhere these days. You’ll find them at the supermarket checkout line, on the counter at Starbucks, and even among the candy and convenience foods at gas stations and airport newsstands. Although these are a much more nutritious options than typical cereal bars and granola bars (which are basically cereal or rolled oats glued together with honey or syrup), they still tend to have a significant amount of sugar.
Despite the sugar content, two things people find appealing about these bars are the short ingredient lists and the use of unprocessed, real food ingredients. When choosing snack or meal replacement bars, don’t just look at the protein content. Pay attention to how much sugar you’re getting, too.
Some of these whole food or real food bars are made primarily from dates or other dried fruit have about 19 to 25 grams of sugar, while some are made primarily with nuts and range from five to 12 grams of sugar. Many women eat the latter as a snack between meals, relying on the healthy fat and protein provided by the nuts to keep hunger at bay.
A piping hot bowl of chicken and broccoli sounds like a nutritious option at a Chinese restaurant, but not when it’s served in a sticky, sweet sauce. Hoisin sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and orange sauce all pack a very sugary punch, something that’s easy to forget when that mountain of broccoli is sending the message that this is a healthier option.
Sweet sauces like hoisin, can contain up to eight grams of sugar per tablespoon, with a typical dish containing several tablespoons. If you’re a fan of American Chinese food, your best bet is to ordered a steamed dish and keep your sauces light and on the side, adding a small amount to taste.
While we’re on the topic of sauces, one of the most popular sauces we add to foods is barbeque sauce. Sure you may be opting for a smaller portion and the more nutritious side, but at 11 grams of sugar per tablespoon of sauce, it’s easy to consume at least 20 grams of sugar in a meal of BBQ meat — and that’s a conservative estimate. It’s a good thing that BBQ sauce is quite flavorful and a little bit goes a long way. There’s no reason to avoid it altogether. When ordering at a restaurant, you can often add the sauce yourself from a selection of bottles at the table. This can help you greatly reduce the total amount of sauce (and sugar) in your meal. When enjoying BBQ at home, try making your own sauce or marinade with a mixture of spices, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, or look for lower-sugar options at the grocery store.
Yogurt, especially Greek yogurt, is a very popular breakfast option and midday snack. It’s portable, tasty, and can be (in the case of Greek yogurt) a great source of protein.
However, flavored yogurts, such as vanilla and pineapple, typically have at least 10 more grams of added sugars compared to the Plain varieties. To be clear, all yogurt contains some sugar due to the naturally occurring lactose (recall above that lactose is a common disaccharide found in milk and milk products), as we pointed out above, but the flavored varieties send that sugar content over the top.
You can make your own flavored yogurt by stirring in a tablespoon of vanilla whey protein, or a quarter cup of blueberries or sliced bananas. Sure, it won’t be as sweet as the store-bought flavored yogurts, but your taste buds will adapt to this new, more subtle level of sweetness.
Basically… sugar's everywhere.
These are just a few foods that can sneak in a heavy dose of sugar and throw off your healthy eating efforts. Keep an eye out for others like: ketchup (give salsa a try instead!), sports drinks, pasta sauces (try fresh tomatoes), granola, milk alternatives like almond, cashew, or coconut milk (look for unsweetened options), flavored coffee drinks, iced tea, salad dressings, and pre-packaged or bottled smoothie drinks.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is quoted saying, “Daily news and sugar confuse our system in the same manner." A statement more true now than ever.
Between poor or misleading reporting and living in a sugar-loving society, it’s hard to know who or what to trust.
One source you can trust is your own body. A high sugar intake usually leads to a rollercoaster of energy, hunger, and cravings as well as changes in body composition and increased inflammation and illness. When you have a solid nutritional foundation, a bit of sugar here and there is less likely to be detrimental to your health and your fitness goals, but it’s still important to know where your sugar intake is coming from and how much you’re actually consuming, especially if you’re intentionally working on improving your eating habits.
And while it’s wise to read labels and ask questions to know what you’re eating, it’s also wise to listen to your body. Your body is smart, and it will let you feel and see which foods help you and which foods you may need to reconsider. Give your body a chance to see how great it feels when it’s not on a high-sugar diet. Prioritizing high-quality sources of protein, vegetables, some fruits, whole grains and healthy fats will help you feel healthy, happy, and full of energy.
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