The average American now consumes some 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. And our sweet tooth isn’t just making us fat — it’s triggering all kinds of inflammation, fueling chronic diseases and even increasing our risks of cancer.
Tame Your Sweet Tooth
When it comes to sugar, it helps to be strategic, says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD: “I’m not saying you can’t have pleasure in the form of sugar, but it’s time to start making informed choices.”
Here are some tips:
- Put protein, healthy fat and fiber in the mix. All of them slow down the digestion process, averting blood-sugar spikes. Get creative by adding slow-digesting nutrients to your favorite sweets. If you’re going to have jam on your toast, make sure you’re also having an egg, some nut butter or other fat with your breakfast. If you’re going to eat cereal, put some walnuts on it. Top pear slices with crumbled Gorgonzola. Choose dark chocolate, which contains some fat, over fat-free candies.
Related: How to Eat More Fiber at Every Meal
- Treat all sugars equally. “The taste buds don’t care if you’re eating raw sugar or high-fructose corn syrup,” says David Katz, MD. “If you bathe them in sweetness, they are going to want more, more, more.” Yes, some sweeteners, like honey, maple syrup and molasses, contain a few beneficial micronutrients. But, in the long run, putting health halos on some sweeteners and demonizing others only perpetuates an unhealthy addiction to sweets.
- Do the math. Food labels list sugar in grams. A gram of sugar is hard to picture, so divide the number of grams by 4. Four grams of sugar equals a teaspoon. In 2009, the American Heart Association advised adults to eat no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men (recommendations are based on average weight for women and men).
- Prioritize low-sugar fruit. When it comes to sugar, not all fruits are created equal. Inside the body, some fruits, such as bananas, convert to sugar more quickly than others, like raspberries, clementines and strawberries. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy a banana now and then, but just try not to overdo it. See: Which Fruits Have the Most & Least Sugar?
Related: 10 Surprisingly Sugary Foods
- Don’t fall for fake. Artificial sweeteners, often used in diet drinks, are non-caloric chemicals designed to stimulate the sweet receptors in the mouth. Aside from their questionable safety, a pressing concern is that these chemicals are up to 600 times sweeter than sugar itself. “When people rely on artificial sweeteners, they tend to prefer all of their other foods sweeter because the intensity of the sweetener propagates a sweet tooth,” says Katz. “You are simply cultivating a preference for more sugar.”
Related: Dangers of Diet Soda
- Curb omega-6 fatty acids. High levels of carbohydrates, including sugar, in the diet activate the enzymes that convert the omega-6 fatty acids found in common vegetable oils, such as soy, corn and safflower oil, into arachidonic acid, the building block necessary to generate cellular inflammation, says Barry Sears, PhD, creator of the Zone Diet and author of the Anti-Inflammation Zone: Reversing the Silent Epidemic That’s Destroying Our Health (Harper Collins, 2005). “A diet rich in refined carbohydrates and omega-6 fats is like adding a lighted match to a barrel of gasoline. Americans have been doing this for 30 years.”
- Limit fruit juice. Remember, it’s the fiber as well as the nutritional value that makes fruit a win-win. Fiber is what makes fruit filling. Depending on its size, an orange may pack up to 4 teaspoons of sugar, but that sugar is absorbed over a couple of hours. Compare that to the 8 teaspoons of sugar in 8 ounces of orange juice that is absorbed in 20 minutes. “That sugar is hyper-absorbed,” says Henry Lodge, MD. “Remember that insulin is released according to how much sugar gets into your bloodstream and how quickly.”
The trick to enjoying the sweet things in life is to ferret out hidden sugars in the diet and save small doses of sugar for dessert, where it belongs. “You can subtract grams and grams of sugar out of your diet without ever touching dessert,” says Katz. “You can systematically reverse-engineer the damage the modern food supply is doing to your body by simply making better choices.”
Where Sugar Hides:
Sugars abound in virtually every meal. Four grams equals 1 teaspoon.
Spaghetti sauce (1 cup) 23 grams
Frosted Flakes (1 cup) 15 grams
Barbecue sauce (1/2 cup) 33 grams
Cola (1 can) 33 grams
French dressing (1 tbs.) 3 grams
Ketchup (1 tbs.) 3 grams
Pineapple (canned in syrup) (1 cup) 43 grams
Low-fat chocolate milk (1 cup) 25 grams
Pink lemonade (from concentrate) (1 cup) 25 grams
Water with added vitamins (1 cup) 13 grams
Fat-free fruit yogurt (1 cup) 47 grams
Bottled ice tea (1 cup) 22 grams