Sugar is not the enemy. But it could be. Which is why you need to pay attention to how you eat.
Sugars that occur naturally in whole foods such as milk, fruit and plain yogurt are coupled with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, said Michelle M. Ray, a Novant Health oncology nutrition specialist. “They protect, at a cellular level, against disease,” she said.
It’s added sugar we need to look out for. “The sugar you find in a lot of cereals, junk food, honey and even some yogurts is added to enhance flavor but has no nutritional benefit,” she cautions. Ray’s patients are often surprised to hear that honey is on her watch list. “People think that honey’s natural, so it’s OK,” she said. “I remind them: It is an added sugar, and this is not a free-for-all.”
Be especially careful about food labeled “fat-free,” she said. Fat is often replaced with sugar or sodium.
While Ray works specifically with patients at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute and Cancer Rehabilitation & Wellness, her tips are applicable to nearly everyone. We asked her what’s most important to know about sugar.
1. Sugar addiction is a real thing.
Research shows that “sugar and sweetness can induce reward and craving that are comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs,” according to a study published in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. While Ray doesn’t know of a 12-step program for sugar addicts, she said a sugar detox can be beneficial for anyone concerned about sugar intake. “Choose a stop date,” she said. “From that date, avoid all added sugar for two weeks. The first three to five days may be really difficult, but it gets easier. As the two weeks progress, your cravings will diminish.”
And it’s not as if you’re going cold turkey. You can have something sweet – but it should be something with natural (and not added) sugar.
“If you start to crave sweets, have a piece of fruit, some lean protein and get out of the kitchen” Ray said.
“Taking a walk may make you forget about the craving.”
2. You’re probably consuming a lot more added sugar than is recommended.
A general rule of thumb is no more than 40 grams of added sugar a day. A more conservative amount recommended is only 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men. “No more than 10 percent of total calories should come from sugar,” Ray said.
3. Too much added sugar can lead to a host of health problems.
“Besides the obvious – cavities, weight gain and obesity, having too much added sugar in your diet raises your risk for all diseases,” Ray said. “A diet heavy in added sugar – even more than one heavy in saturated fat – raises the likelihood of diabetes.”
There’s a myth that “sugar feeds cancer,” she added. “It’s the junk sugars that raise your rate of obesity. And where obesity is present, the risk of cancer goes up.”
4. Sugar is in obvious – and not-so-obvious – places.
“Some foods are clear red flags,” said Ray. “Candy, cake and soda obviously contain lots of sugar.” But juice drinks may be less obvious. There can be added sugar hiding in plain sight. You might be surprised at soda’s sugar content. Just one 12-ounce can might have 39 grams of sugar. “That’s your daily allowance – in just a single serving,” said Ray. She often helps patients identify all the sources of sugar they’re consuming without being aware of it. She had a patient who has consuming 250 grams of sugar in a day through beverages, sauces and (surprise!) salad dressings.
5. Remember: It’s just added sugar you need to be vigilant about controlling.
Some people have the misperception that they should avoid carrots and fruit because they’re high in sugar. These foods do have natural sugars and are packed with nutrients and should be part of a healthy diet. A banana has the same number of calories as five Starburst (100 calories), but only one has nutritional value. Ray said, “Natural sugars don’t count toward your added sugar budget.”
So, enjoy your fruit. It’s Fruity Pebbles and other sugary cereals that should give you pause.