A Mighty Step Toward Better Health
By JiJi Russell
Lately I’ve been spending a little time looking at sugar. I’ll admit it: I love the stuff; always have. I feel certain I come by it naturally, because both my parents and my children seem to carry the sweet tooth gene as well. At this age and stage, at least my palate has matured to the point where I prefer the richer notes and complexities of pure cane or rapadura sugar, molasses, or raw honey. I would gladly choose any of those over plain old white sugar. But I’m not fooling myself: When it comes to added sugar in foods (that is, any amount of sugar not occurring naturally in, say, a piece of fruit), the human body still doesn’t thrive on a boatload of the stuff, whether “natural” or “refined.”
But here’s the real problem: We’re swimming in sugar in this country. Almost 26 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with diabetes—nearly one in 12 people, according to the American Diabetes Association. And with many maladies like inflammation and heart disease often linked to sugar, we need to do better. A little sugar awareness might go a long way, for those who care enough to shine a light on this often hidden Achilles heel of the American diet.
If you can cultivate greater sugar awareness for yourself, you also might help a child, a parent, or a friend to pay better attention and make better choices that will offer a positive long-term impact on his or her health. When I started really looking at the sugar of things, and simultaneously learned more about the depth of the obesity crisis in our nation, my own little discoveries motivated me to curb the impulse to go for the sweet fix—which is saying a lot for a long-time dessert lover.
Many, if not all of you, know that processed foods (just about anything that comes in a can, container, carton, or wrapper) usually contain more sugar (and/or salt) than their fresh or non-flavored counterparts. Let’s start with Greek yogurt. Everyone seems to love it. The texture and protein boost are hard to beat. But, sadly, so many things that are touted as “health foods” contain a mountain of sugar. In this case, eight ounces of Chobani peach yogurt will deliver 25 grams of sugar. Let’s put that into perspective. The World Health Organization suggests that a person limit sugar intake to 10 percent of total daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet (more than most women need), that equates to a maximum of 50 grams of added sugar a day. Fifty grams of sugar equates to about 200 calories.
Okay, say were going to make that Greek yogurt the only sugar for a given day, but later on in the day you eat a great lunch—a towering salad with homemade dressing—one of those tasty and virtuous creations that hit the spot. And so, you thought you just might allot yourself a little treat in the afternoon. How about a Starbucks iced cinnamon dolce latte? That’ll add another 34 grams to your sugar account. Now you’ve surpassed your 50 grams for the day without a proper dessert course.
It sure does seem to add up quickly. Consume a soft drink, a Vitamin Water, a container of juice, or a sweetened tea, and you might just drink down your 50 in one huge gulp.
If you think you might tend toward a little extra sweetness in the diet, here are a few things you can do to initiate greater awareness, and perhaps reduce your sugar load. Start small, taking baby steps to re-train your palate can work. One important note: I do not recommend artificial sweeteners as a healthy alternative to sugar (I will address them in another upcoming article).
- Start by adding just a little less sweetener in the places you usually like it: coffee, tea, cereal, etc. Add just a tad less today . . . then tomorrow . . . .
- If there is an unsweetened version of a food item you eat every day, such as yogurt, choose the unflavored/unsweetened item, and add your own extras, like fresh fruit plus a small amount of sweetener. The same could hold for cereal or granola. Go with unsweetened and add your own.
- Eat fruit—the original dessert—especially during summertime when the choices are abundant. Whole fruits, while often rife with natural sugars, also offer fiber, which helps to slow down the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream. Many fruits also pack vitamins, antioxidants, and other good nutrition to boot.
- If you love soft drinks, try to substitute one of your fizzies a day for plain seltzer water mixed with a splash of juice. Add some slices of lemon and/or lime for a festive twist.
- Like baking? Try eliminating about a third of the recommended sugar in a recipe for baked goods. Things often taste better with less sweetener, anyway. Other flavors will come through. There is a whole genre of recipes that utilize pureed fruits to bring sweetness to baked goods, rather than extra cups of sugar or sweetener.
- Encourage your favorite restaurant or bakery to offer a lower-sugar version of your favorite treat. It never hurts to “vote with your fork.”
- I know someone with a “no sugar before lunchtime” policy. Try that. It might cut out a lot of unnecessary sweets and, at the same time, push you to find a more nutritious and energy-sustaining breakfast.
JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and integrative nutrition health coach, serves as the wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Americans Love Their Sugar
A look at the sugar wallop of some favorite consumables.
- 12 ounces of Pepsi or Coke: about 41 grams
- 21-oz (medium) chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s: 111 grams
- Panera Apple Crunch Muffin: 49 grams
- 20-oz bottle of Vitamin Water: 33 grams
- One Caramel Kreme Crunch donut from Krispy Kreme: 30 grams