The word is out — Americans in general consume too much sugar in one form or another. The recently revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that we modify our sweet tooth (our intake of “added sugars”). The American Heart Association goes into more detail. It specifies no more than 100 calories (25gm) a day from added sugars for women and no more than 150 calories (about 38gm) for men.
Where did this sweets craving begin and how did it get out of hand? It is normal for humans to like sweet tastes. Studies show that even newborn babies prefer sweet flavors. Unfortunately, the number of sweet foods in the marketplace has grown (along with our waistlines and medical issues). Instead of sweet foods being an occasional treat, we now expect sweets more often.
Tooth decay, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other health concerns are associated with this change in dietary habits. Another problem is that these foods tend to be lower in nutrients than the less sweet options.
The good news is that there are a number of small steps you can take to move toward the recommendation to reduce your sugar intake. Gradually weaning yourself to lesser amounts of sugar will allow time for your taste buds to get used to the change.
If you crave sugar, it may be because of the type and timing of your food intake throughout the day. Leaving wide gaps between eating episodes leaves you vulnerable to grabbing the nearest sweet treat — and often over-consuming it. A better idea is to preplan healthy meals and snacks with gaps of no more than about three to four hours.
Protein and fiber in a meal or snack slow down the digestion of carbohydrates. This means the carbs provide energy over several hours instead of rushing in and getting used up quickly, leaving you craving a quick energy fix.
There are also ways to modify the amount of sugar you consume through cooking and shopping tips. Think of all the times you add sugar to foods or beverages and see if you can gradually wean yourself to lesser amounts. When it comes to baking, try cutting the amount of sugar in a recipe at least in half. You can also add sweet-tasting ingredients that add flavor without added calories — like sweet spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, etc.), extracts (vanilla, almond, anise, coconut, etc.), or zests (lemon, lime, orange).
Other ingredients that add nutrients as well as a sweet taste might be pieces of dried fruit (raisins, dried cranberries, dried apricots, dried plums, etc.), fresh fruit, applesauce or other fruit purees (you can also use these as a topping for pancakes instead of syrup). Examples might be muffins with dried fruit or oatmeal with applesauce and cinnamon. Try replacing breakfast pastries or doughnuts with healthier whole grain options — like whole grain toast topped with peanut butter and sliced banana.
If you are a sugary cereal eater, consider filling your bowl most of the way with a lower sugar/higher fiber cereal and then top with the sugary one. When you add milk, the sweetness goes into the rest of the bowl. Otherwise choose a cereal you like with no more than about 8 gm of added sugar.
When it comes to grocery shopping, try to avoid processed foods with added sugar. Read food labels. Look for terms like brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, high-fructose corn syrup, galactose, glucose, honey, hydrogenated starch, invert sugar maltose, lactose, mannitol, maple syrup, molasses, polyols, raw sugar, sorghum, sucrose, sorbitol, turbinado sugar. See where they fall on the ingredient list (early in the list means higher amounts). Consider whether you can make a similar food from scratch and modify the ingredients to lower the sugar content.
Look for hidden sources of sugar. Examples might be baked beans, barbecue or sweet and sour sauces, cough drops or gum. Know that every 4 gm of sugar equals one teaspoon of sugar.
Remember that some sugar on a label may come from the natural sugar in fruit or a dairy source. These are not part of the “added sugar” limitation. For example, plain yogurt naturally contains sugar, but flavored yogurt has added sugar beyond what it contains naturally. If plain yogurt does not taste sweet enough to you, try combining some plain and some flavored, or add fruit to the plain.
Much of our sugar intake comes from beverages. Limit soda, sports drinks, sweetened tea or coffee drinks, fruit drinks, or caloric flavored waters. If you need your beverage to have taste, try milk, water with lemon, herbal teas, or a little real fruit juice with fizzy water.
There are numerous “bars” available, ranging from those that mimic candy bars, to sports bars, to energy bars, to those that actually include some healthy food groups. Again, read the food label and make an educated decision. In many cases, it might be healthier to substitute another healthy snack (like a homemade trail mix of a high fiber cereal and some unsalted nuts or seeds).
If desserts have been a big part of your life, think of ways you can modify your intake to lessen the amount of sugar each week. This might mean eating them only on designated days or meals, reducing the portions, sharing the dessert, or doing “tastings” instead of eating a whole serving. Keeping sweets out of the house means they will not be calling your name until you eat them. Try fruit or a fruit and yogurt smoothie as a replacement some days. Then, go out occasionally for a moderate-sized treat.
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, Maine, and Portsmouth. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy and is teaching healthy cooking classes at Stonewall Kitchen. Visit www.pamstuppynutrition.com for some healthy recipe ideas.