Oh, Sugar! Less is Best for Lower Disease Risk

Oh, Sugar! Less is Best for Lower Disease Risk

It may not seem like it when you crave something sugary, but our bodies don’t work best on sweets.

Simple sugars, often found in sweets and snack foods, give us “empty” calories. Although they may give us a short-lived energy boost, they mainly add calories to our diets that don’t give our bodies any extra nutrients or longer-lasting energy in return.

The empty calories your body doesn’t use may show up on your waistline. Often, the results of added sugars on our health go beyond obesity. Eating too much sugar has been linked to:

  • High triglycerides (having ‘high fat’ content in your blood linked to high cholesterol)
  • Obesity-related high blood pressure
  • Liver disease and too much fat around your organs
  • Greater risk for heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
Hiding in Plain Sight

For many people, it’s these hidden simple sugars that are the problem. Just where do sugars hide?

“Hidden” sugars lurk in many of our favorite foods and drinks. A medium vanilla latte? It has around 35 grams of sugar. A medium “sweet tea” can pack around 55 grams of sugar. A medium soda can serve up about 85 grams of sugar. There are also other hidden sources of sugar in less obvious foods. Pasta sauce, gravy, condiments, flavored yogurts and even “healthy” cereals can have a lot of sugar.

There are so many hidden, added sugars in prepared foods that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says nutrition labels should show the amount of added sugars as a part of the recommended daily calorie intake.

How Much Is too Much?

Most of the calories a person needs each day, about 85 percent, should be healthy, nutrient-dense foods, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture leaving site icon and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That leaves just 15 percent for added sugars or saturated fats. That’s about 250 - 350 calories for most people.

The guidelines make it clear: Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium – and limit alcoholic beverages. The new dietary guidelines recommend getting less than 10 percent of your calories per day from added sugars. ‘Added sugars’ is the key phrase here. Naturally occurring sugars, like those in fruit, are not included in the 10 percent.

Retraining Your Sweet Tooth

Once someone gets a preference for a sweeter taste, it’s hard to change. But registered dietitian Judy Kolish says you can change your taste to like foods prepared with less sugar or in their whole, natural form.

We can become more tuned in to the amount of sugar in our food, she says. “Instead of always choosing sweet foods, choose foods you enjoy that are well-prepared.”

Try plain Greek or Icelandic-style yogurt and add low-fat granola, dried or fresh fruit to taste. You might be surprised at how your tastes can change about less-sweet foods.

“When you stop to be in the moment and be mindful of what you are eating, you may even find that you dislike foods that are overly sweet,” she says.

Curb Your Sweet Tooth

Try these tips to curb your sweet tooth:

  • Read food labels. Check the number of sugar grams. There are four calories in each sugar gram. Compare brands. Skip those that place honey, corn or maple syrup, or words that end in “-ose” (fructose or sucrose) at the top of the ingredient list.
  • Cut the amount of sugar you add to your coffee, cereal or tea in half. When baking, slash sugar by one-third to one-half. You often won’t notice the difference.
  • Buy fresh fruits. Or try fruit canned with water or natural juice instead of syrup.
  • Choose water over sodas and sports drinks. Or find reduced-sugar juices and drinks. Say goodbye to your sweet tea. Drink it unsweetened instead.
  • Reach for the spice jar. Ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon — along with extracts like vanilla and almond — add flavor with fewer calories.

Need more tips on nutrition? Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025    offers a look at our eating habits and changes for better health.

Source: Current Dietary Guidelines,    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2022.

Originally published 6/23/2016; Revised 2019, 2022