Sugar: Good, Better, Best
Undoubtedly, one of the most talked about words in the nutrition world, sugar, is a hot topic. And rightly so. We Americans are consuming more added, natural, and artificial sweeteners than ever before and by the looks of it, we aren’t slowing down any time soon. Just take a look around you. From the grocery store, to coffee shops, to your pinned recipes and Instagram feeds. Sugar is everywhere.
Impact on Health
Our obsession with all things sweet has a clear impact on our health; the more we eat, the more we crave. Additionally, overconsumption of calories from added sugars (those not naturally occurring in foods) can lead to overweight and obesity, increased risk for type ll diabetes, heart disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – to name a few!
Coming from two dietitians you’re probably gearing up for a lecture on how you need to eliminate this “nasty” ingredient from your diet as soon as, well, yesterday. But, that’s not the case. In fact, we don’t want you to eliminate sugar or treat it like an evil ingredient. What our hope is that we can encourage you to make smart choices with your “sugar” consumption and teach you how to gradually cut back your every day added sugars for better overall health.
“Sugar” Is Not Created Equally
One of our biggest pet peeves is when clients proclaim that they are eliminating “sugar” from their diet. While most are likely referring to froufrou coffee drinks, candy at work, and ice cream after dinner, the term “sugar” has a much larger span. You see, ALL carbohydrates are broken down into glucose to be metabolized for energy. That means that both carbohydrates coming from your organic, non-gmo, sprouted date nut bread and those coming from a Venti Caramel Frap can both provide essential energy for the body. Now, of course the former option is providing you with far greater nutrients, but even the latter can help sustain human life.
Types of Carbohydrates
There are two primary groups of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are broken down rapidly to be used by the body for immediate energy. Foods with naturally occurring simple carbs include calcium and protein-rich milk and yogurt products and fruit which contains water, fiber, and potent phytonutrients. They are also found in processed sugars like high fructose corn syrup**, other syrups, honey, agave, organic coconut sugar, table sugar, candy, sweet drinks, refined grains (white bread, crackers, traditional pasta).
Complex carbohydrates are made up of longer sugar molecules that digest more slowly than simple sugars, therefore helping to provide more sustained energy. Rich in vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and phytonutrients, they are found in starchy veggies, beans and legumes, and whole grains.
As you can see, we want to include mostly complex carbohydrates in our everyday diet, however, simple carbohydrates including dairy and fruit have health benefits of their own.
**Did you know that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can be called “natural sweetener” on food labels? Be wary of anything labeled “natural” as this term does not = healthy.
Carbs (ok, and fat and protein too) in one of our favorite forms:
Cutting Back on Added Sugars
Have you ever tried removing added sugars from your diet overnight? If so, you probably 1) hated life and 2) didn’t last very long. Are we close? Rather than going extreme, here are our realistic top tips for reducing added sugar intake.
- Go halvesies – Like sweetened creamer in your morning coffee? Rather than using the sweetened creamer by itself, cut your regular amount in half and replace the other half with an unsweetened creamer. Over time, your tastebuds will adjust to this new level of sweet and you won’t even realize you cut back! This works great with kiddos (or adults) and sweet cereals. Can’t part with those marshmallow charms? Mix 2/3 sweet cereal with 1/3 unsweetened oat cereal or whole wheat flakes. After a few weeks go 1:1. Eventually you may be able to get rid of the sweet stuff altogether and swap marshmallows for fresh fruit!
- Try infused water – Addicted to diet soda, flavored lattes, or other sweet drinks? Give your water an upgrade. Slice fresh fruit like berries and citrus, herbs like mint and basil and place in tap or sparkling water for a refreshing drink that provides natural sweetness for virtually no calories and no added sugars. One of our favorite combos is orange slices and sliced strawberries. Want to take a trip to the spa while at work? Mix mint, lemon, and cucumber slices. Voila!
- Get friendly with spices and natural extracts – Want to sweeten up smoothies, oats, baked goods, coffee/tea, yogurt? Reach in your spice cabinet. Cinnamon, vanilla or almond extracts, and citrus zests are wonderful ways to add sweet and they may offer additional benefits on your health.
Remember, reducing added sugar intake is not likely going to be achieved overnight. Take a look at your regular daily intake and highlight one area where you take in too much sweet. Make that your focus for the next 4 weeks. Once you’ve made an improvement there, move on to the next. Each small improvement can make a major impact on your overall health.