During a global pandemic or even more moderately stressful life circumstances, we often turn to comforting sugary and carb-rich indulgences that may help to calm us down.
Now for the bad news. New recommendations that will inform soon-to-be-released US dietary guidelines reveal we should further limit the amount of sugar we consume. This guidance will come at a time when many of us may be looking to indulge our sweet tooth more than ever.
First, some sugar basics: Not all sugars are created equal and need to be limited to the same degree. Natural sugars are present in nutritious foods like fruit and milk in the form of fructose and lactose. These foods deliver important nutrients — such as fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals — that play a role in a healthy diet.
Added sugars are another story. They are sugars or sweeteners that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation. They contribute calories, without any essential nutrients.
The average American gets about 13% of their total calories from added sugars, but new recommendations call for that average to be cut by about half, according to a recently issued report from the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — a group of experts charged with providing science-based recommendations every five years. The 2020 committee recommended a limit of no more than 6% of calories coming from added sugars, with ranges from 3% at the lowest calorie levels and up to 8% at the highest calorie levels (which vary based on age, gender, activity level and body weight). The committee also recommended that children younger than age 2 should avoid any foods and beverages with added sugars.
How many treats do you get?
That 6% limit translates to 30 grams of sugar in a 2,000 calorie daily diet — less sugar than what’s in a 12-ounce can of soda. It’s a limit that more closely reflects the American Heart Association’s current recommendation, which was issued in 2009.
The heart association’s recommendation translates to a limit of 6 teaspoons of sugar, or about 25 grams each day for women and children over 2 years of age; and about 9 teaspoons, or about 36 grams for men.
There are 6 teaspoons or 25 grams of sugar in two and a half chocolate chip cookies, 16 ounces of fruit punch and about 1½ tablespoons of honey. There are 9 teaspoons, or about 36 grams of sugar in 11 ounces of cola, 2 servings of premium vanilla ice cream and about 2 tablespoons plus one teaspoon of honey.
Why do you need to avoid added sugars? They increase the risk for cardiovascular disease in different ways. For one, excess calorie intake contributes to weight gain, thereby increasing risks for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
High sugar intake is also associated with increased triglyceride levels that often accompany reduced HDL-cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins, better known as the good cholesterol) levels, thereby contributing to metabolic syndrome, also a risk for developing cardiovascular disease, explained Linda Van Horn, chief of the nutrition division at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s department of preventive medicine.
And since most adults need fewer calories with increasing age, their limited total calorie intake should come from nutrient-dense foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and fish, appropriate dairy foods, legumes and nuts, Van Horn said.
“To consume all of those recommended foods encompasses the vast majority of their calorie allowance leaving very few ‘discretionary’ or empty sugary calories without causing weight gain,” Van Horn said.
But though limiting added sugars to 6% of calories may be ideal from a nutrient-density perspective, that doesn’t mean it will be easy to achieve.
“While it’s great if you can get added sugar intake to no more than 6% of calories, depending on your current diet, the (previous) recommendation of no more than 10% of calories may be a more realistic and achievable goal to aim for first,” said Denver-based registered dietitian nutritionist Kelli McGrane, who works as a dietitian for Lose It! and TheHealthyToast.com.
Again, here’s the math: 6% of added sugars on a 2,000 calorie diet is 30 grams of sugar or 120 sugar calories.
Strategies for cutting back
Five food categories — sweetened beverages, desserts and sweet snacks, coffee and tea (with their additions), candy and sugars, and breakfast cereals and bars — contribute 70% of the added sugars we consume in the United States, according to the dietary guidelines committee. These foods are often energy-dense with low amounts of key dietary nutrients.
Here are some ways to reduce your intake.
Train your taste buds to crave less sugar. Cut back gradually and include more protein and fiber-rich foods in your diet, which will help you crave less sugar.
Consume low-sugar or no-sugar-added versions of foods. Opt for whole-grain cereals with less than 6 grams of sugar per serving and unsweetened yogurts, McGrane said.
You can sweeten these foods with natural, nutrient-rich sources of sugar like berries or diced fruit. If your kids love a sugary cereal, you can sprinkle it on top of a healthier, whole-grain cereal.
Limit or avoid all sugar-sweetened drinks. That includes sodas, energy drinks and fruit punch. If you like sweet carbonated beverages, add a splash of cranberry or orange juice to seltzer or try flavored seltzers. You can also flavor your own waters with fruit slices for natural sweetness or try herbal fruit teas.
Cut back on sugar in your coffee and tea. These sugar calories can quickly add up, especially if you drink more than one cup each day. If you are currently adding 2 teaspoons of sugar, cut back to one.
This applies to coffee shops, too. “If you’re just starting to wean yourself off sweetened store-bought coffee drinks, ask for fewer pumps of syrup. As each pump contains approximately 5 grams of sugar, depending on the flavor, the sugar savings add up quickly,” McGrane said.
Enjoy fruit for dessert. Try cinnamon baked apples, berries or grilled peaches instead of cookies, cake, ice cream, pastries and other sweet treats. If you need something a bit more indulgent, swap your candy habit for a piece of good-quality dark chocolate. “It’ll still satisfy that sweet craving without as much sugar,” McGrane said.
Look out for stealth sugars. Added sugars are often present in foods that you might not think of as “sweet,” like sauces, breads, condiments and salad dressings.
“Pre-packaged sauces — like ketchup, BBQ sauce and tomato sauce — tend to be some of the biggest offenders of hidden added sugars in the diet,” said Kristi King, senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Check nutrition facts labels. This will help you determine how much of your added sugar budget a food or beverage contains. By January 1, 2021, all foods and beverages will be required to list added sugars on food labels.
Until then, look for other names for added sugars like: agave, brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, fruit nectar, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, maple syrups, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose and turbinado sugar.
The higher up these added sugars are on the ingredients list, the greater the amount of added sugar in the product.
Cooking helps you reduce added sugars
Use fruits and spices to add flavor at breakfast rather than sugar. “Rather than having sweetened oatmeal packets, make plain oatmeal and flavor with blueberries and cinnamon. I even like adding a pinch of cardamom for an extra flavor-punch,” McGrane said. You can also use sliced fruit instead of sugary jams on your toast and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “Sliced strawberries are my favorite, but peach, banana, and apple slices all work well, too,” McGrane said.
Opt for homemade rather than store-bought baked goods. This gives you full control over the amount of sugar in your desserts. In most recipes (except for yeast breads) you can reduce the sugar by a third without causing a noticeable difference in texture, McGrane explained.
Make your own granola or protein bars. “I like making chocolate chip cookie dough bites that are sweetened only with medjool dates, almond extract and mini dark chocolate chips,” McGrane said.
Create your own sauces and salad dressings. As condiments and sauces are often a hidden source of sugar in our diets, you can make your own versions while controlling the amount of sugar you add.
Try using salsa as your condiment instead of ketchup. Two tablespoons of standard salsa contains 1 gram of sugar, compared to 6 grams of sugar in 2 tablespoons of ketchup, McGrane explained.
If it feels impossible to escape your sugar cravings, start out by trying just one or two of these strategies. As you get the hang of those newly formed habits, slowly incorporate the other tips, one or two at a time. Taking a gradual path will help you curb your sweet tooth and set you up for improved health for the long haul. Isn’t that sweet news?
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.