From Halloween to the holidays, the fall and winter months provide plenty of opportunities to indulge your sweet tooth. While the occasional sugar-laden treat can certainly be part of an overall balanced diet, evidence suggests too much sugar intake can take a major toll on your health, increasing your long-term risk of serious diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Holiday season or not, sugar is a big part of the standard American diet. In the United States, added sugar accounts for up to 17% of calorie intake for adults — nearly double the recommended dietary guidelines suggesting people consume no more than 10% of their daily calories from it. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum daily sugar intake of 36 grams (150 calories) for men and 25 grams (100 calories) for women, but American adults consume an average of 77 grams of sugar daily!
One reason experts advise limited sugar intake is the role it plays in obesity. Studies suggest consuming sugar can actually increase hunger for other foods, which could contribute to weight gain and the health risks that come with it. While people can be healthy at a variety of weights, obesity is one major risk factor for metabolic diseases, such as type two diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Regardless of weight, people who consume high amounts of sugar face increased risk of health problems. Studies link a high-sugar diet with an increased risk of dying from heart disease. Persistent high-sugar intake can also promote insulin resistance, which can cause blood sugar levels to spike and, over time, heighten a person’s risk for developing type two diabetes. One study found people’s risk for diabetes increases more than 1% for every 150 calories of sugar they consume per day. There is also evidence that decreasing your sugar intake reduces your risk of liver disease.
Too much sugar can also impact your dental health. “Certain strains of bacteria that are stuck in the nooks and crannies of our teeth will consume sugar and excrete acid,” says Tend Chief Dental Officer Chris Salierno, DDS. “That acid erodes our enamel. If left unchecked, these colonies of bacteria slowly invade our teeth, eating and excreting, creating increasingly larger defects (cavities) in our teeth. When the lesions are very small and we practice good hygiene, the minerals in our saliva or the fluoride in our toothpaste can actually repair the damage. But it doesn’t take long for these lesions to get big enough to be permanent, meaning only a dentist can clean and fill them.”
While eating a candy bar or drinking a sugar-filled can of soda might satisfy a craving or give an energy boost in the moment, evidence also shows sugar can negatively impact mental health. After you eat sugar, your blood sugar rises and then crashes, which can cause feelings of anxiety or panic (and encourage you to eat more sugar). Plus, studies show the more refined carbohydrates people eat — including sugar — the higher their risk for depression.
Cutting down on sugar is one way to improve your well-being and reduce your risk of disease — but changing your eating habits is much easier said than done. Here are a few simple-but-effective ways to scale back on sugar and, hopefully, increase the amount of nutritious food you eat on a daily basis.
Learn the names of sugar
The first thing to know: To improve your health, you don’t have to totally restrict sugar. Mindful eating, or simply paying attention to your food intake, is one way to boost your overall nutrition and health. One way to do that is to check your food labels for ingredients you want to limit. “Knowledge is power,” says One Medical provider David Eiser, MD. “Read labels to find hidden added sugars and educate yourself on how much added sugars are in foods you like so you can make smart choices.”
You might not recognize sugar in some of its covert forms. Here are some other names for sugar to keep an eye out for:
- Cane sugar
- Dried cane juice
- Dried cane syrup
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Brown sugar
- Brown rice syrup
- Sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose, or maltose
Skip the added sugar
Many foods contain sugar, from fruit to starchy vegetables. While your doctor may recommend you limit all types of sugar if you’re at risk for certain conditions, added sugar should be limited across the board. Not only do added sugars get absorbed more quickly in the body, resulting in increased insulin output, they also don’t contain any other nutrients, unlike fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. “Moderation is key,” says Eisner. “Treat yourself to sweets, but try to leave excess sugar out of your daily routine.”
To cut down on these empty calories, try finding baking recipes that replace some of the sugar with sugar substitute, drinking your coffee or tea without sugar, or adding fruit to your oatmeal or cereal rather than sugar.
Save dessert for special occasions
Eating too much sugar can pose risks to your health, but cutting it out altogether isn’t realistic. Plus, restricting entire categories of food can result in cravings and overeating. Instead of forcing yourself to say “no” to every treat, save dessert for special occasions, like special meals and celebrations, and focus on eating sweet treats you really enjoy rather than mindlessly eating Halloween candy just because it’s in front of you.
Drink less sugar
Juice, soda, and sweetened coffee drinks are a major source of sugar, and like candy and dessert, they don’t add any nutrients to your diet. A simple way to cut down on sugar is to limit the amount of sugar you consume in drinks. While diet sodas that contain sweeteners may seem like better alternatives, an increasing number of studies link them with potential health risks. Try to focus on hydrating beverages like water, sparkling water, or unsweetened tea. “If you’re going to drink a sugary beverage, drink it fast,” says Salierno. “Sipping it for several hours will continually bathe your teeth in sugar. On the other hand, drinking quickly and following with some water will help wash away the remnants and allow your saliva to do some repair work.”
Eat fresh food
“Replace desserts, like pie, ice cream, candy with delicious fresh fruit,” says Eisner. Unlike processed foods, which are often ridden with sugar and other harmful ingredients, fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and lean meats contain nutrients that nourish the body. As a general rule, include as many whole (non-processed) foods in your meals as possible. You’ll feel fuller when you eat protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs, which could in turn reduce sugar cravings.
Buy unsweetened versions
Just as totally cutting out sugar isn’t practical, it may also not be realistic to limit your eating plan to whole foods. When you do buy pre-packaged foods, opt for choices that don’t include added sugar or other sweeteners. Easy foods to swap out for unsweetened versions include milk alternatives (such as soy milk or almond milk), apple sauce, nut butters, canned fruit, dried fruit, marinara sauce, and ketchup. Many store-bought salad dressings included added sugar, so if you can’t find a low-sugar or sugarless option you like, try making your own oil and vinegar-based dressing at home. You probably won’t even miss the sweetener!
Watch your portion sizes
If you decide to indulge in a sugary treat — as we all do from time to time — try to choose a smaller serving, such as a single scoop of ice cream or half a pastry. It could also help to practice mindfulness in the process. Slowing down to savor each bite can help you recognize when you're full and limit your sugar intake.
You’ll not only enjoy your sweet treat more with a mindful approach; you’ll also reduce your chances of feeling crummy afterward and, if you stick with it, improve your long-term health.
Practice good hygiene
In addition to limiting your sugar intake, it’s important to practice good dental hygiene to prevent cavities, tooth decay, and other health complications. “Brush at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, and use something like floss to get between your teeth,” says Salierno. “If your dentist tells you that you’re at higher risk for tooth decay, I strongly recommend a nighttime fluoride rinse. Fluoride helps repair cavities when they’re small, helps kill bacteria directly, and can act like a temporary force field around our teeth.” You should also plan to see your dentist at least twice a year. “ Even the best brushers and flossers in the world need help removing plaque and tartar,” says Salierno. “They will also conduct a risk assessment for tooth decay, gum disease, and other conditions to reduce the chances of unpleasant emergencies. Some mouths are able to tolerate more dietary sugar based on home care regimens and genetic factors, so ask your dental team where you stand.”
If you have questions about sugar, it’s impact on your health, and your nutrition, reach out to your primary care provider. They will take the time to listen closely and understand where you are right now in terms of your lifestyle and diet, and work with you to help achieve your goals. If your provider thinks you would benefit from advanced nutrition guidance, they can connect you with a dietician, nutritionist, or weight management center to help you achieve your goals.
Looking for some guidance to help with your diet? Book an appointment today!
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orange County,Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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