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Justine Hays is a Registered Dietitian and as such, is trained in putting nutrition science concepts into practical lifestyle changes. Opinions are only those of the author. 

Any meal plans, recipes, product reviews etc. provided on this site are provided without a full health examination or discussion of any individual health condition. Justine Hays is in no way responsible for medical decisions, nor will this website provide medical advice. 

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  • Justine Hays

Sugar? It's not all sweet.

Ask people what they think they should eat less of and among the most frequent answers is sugar. But "sugar" brings its own set of questions, too. Research shows that consuming too much sugar can cause overweight and obesity, tooth decay, and may lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.


But how much is OK? What foods contain sugar? Is fruit bad because it contains sugar? Is honey better than sugar? These answers may surprise you.


How much sugar is too much?

Well, it depends who you ask. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams for women and 35 grams for men. It can be hard to visualize grams in our minds so sometimes the limit is delivered in teaspoons: 6 for women, 9 for men. There are 4.2 grams of sugar in a teaspoon.



If you ask another source, The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020), or "DGA," you'll get a different answer. The current DGA recommends that Americans take in no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars. That may seem like a vague answer but with a quick calculation you can figure out your recommended limit. If you follow a 2,000 calorie diet, you could allow up to 200 calories of your daily intake from added sugar. There are 4 calories per gram.


200 calories divided by 4 calories per gram = 50 grams

50 grams divided by 4.2 = 11.9 teaspoons (let's round to 12)


Calorie needs vary widely by individual, gender, and activity level. For example, an active 18-year-old male may need to consume 2,800 calories, whereas an active 18-year-old female may only need 2,400. To learn more about your calorie needs check out this table from the 2015-2020 DGA or chat with a dietitian.


The World Health Organization lands in the middle of recommendations. WHO states less than 10% of daily calories should come from "free" or added sugars. They cite additional health benefits if this percentage is reduced to 5 percent, or about 6 teaspoons, like the American Heart Association recommends.


The WHO give a glimpse into global free/added sugar consumption:


"Worldwide intake of free sugars varies by age, setting, and country. In Europe, intake in adults ranges from about 7-8 percent of total energy intake in countries like Hungary and Norway, to 16-17 percent in countries like Spain and the United Kingdom. Intake is much higher among children, ranging from about 12 percent in countries like Denmark, Slovenia and Sweden, to nearly 25 percent in Portugal. There are also rural/urban differences. In rural communities in South Africa intake is 7.5 percent, while in the urban population it is 10.3 percent." (WHO reference) In the United States, the average American takes in 270 calories from added sugars, about 17 teaspoons or 14 percent of their daily calories. (USDA reference)


Which sugar is "bad"?

The quick answer: no sugar is bad. We just shouldn't eat too much of it. This is true of any food. However, people may feel they are eating "better" sugar because they only eat organic sugar, honey, brown sugar, raw sugar, or maple syrup. The truth is, in your body, these sugars (glucose, sucrose, fructose) all do the same thing. They all contain 4 calories per gram. They all raise blood sugar rapidly when consumed individually. They can all cause dental decay or weight gain when consumed in excess. They should all be consumed in moderation. The nutrients in honey, molasses, and syrup are so trace that it doesn't significantly impact your health.


Some individuals may choose to forgo fruit as a means to lower their sugar intake. Bananas and grapes have a reputation for being high in sugar but they also have a lot more to offer. Let's be clear about fruit, it contains sugar (fructose). That's what make it taste so good. Whole fruit, like bananas and grapes, also contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that fuel your body and help you thrive. Cutting fruit out of your life is not the answer. If you feel concerned about fruit in your diet, I encourage you to speak with your physician or find a dietitian.


Finding Hidden Sugar

We all understand that candy, cookies, cakes, and sweet treats contain sugar but sugar is added to many foods, and in many amounts, that may surprise you.


Using a nutrition label is your best guide to understanding what's in your food and how frequently it fits into your lifestyle. New laws have required companies to print how much sugar they have added to food products. Take a peek in your pantry and see what sneaky sugar is lurking in those boxes and bags. Ketchup contains around 1 teaspoon of sugar per tablespoon of the saucy stuff. Check out barbecue sauce, pasta sauce, frozen entrees, kids yogurts, and cereal!

Frozen sesame chicken with 15g added sugar

If you're ready to reduce how much added sugar you and your family consume here are few simple swaps you can make, over time, to find a "sweeter" way to live your healthy lifestyle.

Choose unsweetened - Plain yogurt and unsweetened cereal can be quick ways to reduce your added sugar. Simply drizzle a little honey or maple syrup over plain yogurt, stir in a small teaspoon of jam, or top it with fruit to have a sweet snack. You get to choose the sweetness!

Avoid sugary drinks - Sugary drinks such as soda, soft drinks, and flavored milks can pack more sugar than a candy bar. Choose water, plain milk or milk alternatives, and flavored seltzer with no sugar added.

Make it at home - Store portion sizes of sweet treats can be over the top, sometimes quadruple a regular serving size. Make sweet treats at home where you can control how much sugar is added into a recipe and how big each portion is.

Be mindful - When enjoying a sweet treat, really enjoy it! Take the time to savor it and appreciate the flavors.


You don't have to make any or all of these changes at once. You don't have to cut sugar totally out of your life. It's all about finding a balance in your life that works for you. For me, I'd rather skip a soda and snack on a cookie. Try to think about your choices and balance them as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Are there days where I consume more than the recommended amount of sugar? Sure! It's OK, it's just not an everyday thing.

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