There are plenty of reasons to cut back on sugar: Beyond the obvious—it contributes to tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes—it may be indirectly associated with increased risk of heart disease, inflammation, cancer and dementia. In addition, while it provides energy because it’s a carbohydrate, it lacks vitamins and minerals. Since knowledge is power, and these are some compelling motivations for keeping sugar intake to a minimum, a big question remains: How can that little caramel or cookie still seem to have as much hold over you as it does?
There’s no denying that it’s plain tempting. But the true allure goes beyond your taste buds. Sugar triggers natural opioids (feel-good chemicals) in your brain—why chocolate may be your go-to pick-you-up on a rough day. And though it may seem outlandish, sugar may actually activate your brain much in the way that illegal drugs do. “A certain amount of sugar gives your brain a lovely pleasure response at first,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D.N., director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, “but then, you need more and more of it to get to the same levels [of satisfaction].” Regularly consuming a lot of sugar, and then going without, can actually lead to withdrawal-like symptoms. So, the goal is keeping sugar intake to a healthy minimum not only to reduce potential health risks, but cravings that can perpetuate consuming too much.
So, How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
If you look up the nutritional components of, say, an apple or a slice of cheese, you’ll notice some sugar. Unless you are consuming these whole foods in very large quantities, don’t be concerned. They are essential parts of a balanced diet. The effects of the natural sugar in fruit (fructose) and unflavored dairy products (lactose) are tempered by the other healthy nutrients they contain.
The concern comes with added sugars—those that are included in a recipe or product simply to up the sweetness factor. The average American consumes 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar (355 calories worth) each day. That far exceeds what’s recommended by the American Heart Association: a maximum of 6 teaspoons (24 grams, 100 calories) a day for women, and 9 teaspoons (36 grams, 150 calories) for men.
This is, in part, because of what we consider “sugary foods”—sodas, cakes and the like. But it’s also because of hidden sources of sugar in a variety of the foods we eat.
Added sugar can “hide” on food labels under different names. Here are some common aliases and sources:
- Agave nectar
- Barley malt
- Cane crystals
- Cane sugar (evaporated cane juice or cane crystals)*
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Crystalline fructose
- Fruit juice*
- Fruit juice concentrates*
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
*Life is sweet at Canyon Ranch! We cook with minimal added sugar, using a variety of natural sweeteners (including these options) only in modest quantities to create our satisfying recipes. Compared to their counterparts, these options are lower in fructose.
Tomato sauce, light salad dressing, reduced fat peanut butter, cereal and other processed products you may choose as part of a healthy diet may, then, be surprisingly high in added sugar. For example, six ounces of regular, plain yogurt has about 12 grams sugar—all naturally occurring lactose. Change your order to fruit-flavored version and that number can more than double, largely because of added sugars used for flavoring.
Strategies for Success
You would think that bringing your sugar consumption to a healthy level starts with figuring out exactly how much you’re consuming. That would be a useful exercise, except for the fact that food labels offer total sugar grams and not a breakdown of what percentage of them are natural or added. Since this task can be a challenging one, try writing down everything you’ve eaten in a week and review that list for processed foods you can consider replacing with whole food options. For example, you might choose to make your own no-sugar-added pasta topper, like our Chunky Tomato Sauce, instead of purchasing a jarred version.
Then, work to “reset” your brain chemistry and habits:
Start slowly… Try drinking your tea or coffee plain, or just with some milk. Then switch to naturally flavored seltzer instead of soft drinks, or drizzle salad with some fresh-squeezed lemon juice or unseasoned rice vinegar and a touch of flavorful extra virgin olive oil, instead of dousing it with bottled dressing. Gradually reducing the overall amount of sugar you consume can make it easier to adapt to consuming less. Remember: Sweet eating begets sweet craving.
…and choose healthy treats: A juicy peach or some fresh berries—train your brain by making these and other healthy picks the sweetest foods you consume. Over time, a sip or bite of your old, sugary favorites suddenly seem too overwhelming.
Eat sugary “must haves” in a safe environment: If you just can’t give up ice cream, for example, try only having it when you go out to a parlor, where you can get a small portion and walk away. Of course, if even a tiny amount makes you turn around and place a second order, you may want to cut the food out entirely.
Avoid undereating: When your blood sugar is low, as can happen when it has been more than three or four hours since you last ate, you’ll innately go for the food that will get that level up the fastest—and sugary items top the list. Work to fit in all your meals, and reach for snacks that contain carbohydrates, protein and a little bit of fat (nuts, cheese); they’ll keep you satisfied longer.
Pass on artificial sweeteners: Besides the fact that safety research is limited, the super-sweetness of these products may dull your taste buds over time. This may not only make you less likely to find less sweet (and more nutritious) foods palatable, but even sugar-packed choices unsatisfying in small amounts. Sweeteners may also affect the appetite center in your brain.