Keep a Healthy Perspective on Sugar
Sugar is a hot topic these days, with competing opinions on added sugars, natural sugars, addiction to sugar, how much to eat, how much to limit our consumption, etc. It can be exhausting to simply figure out how to make healthy choices without going crazy or becoming obsessive. I have many clients struggling with disordered eating habits who feel confused about how much sugar to eat, if they should have it at all, if addiction to sugar is a real thing and how not to be overly concerned with the number of sugar grams in everything they eat.
Keeping sugar in check while not becoming obsessed is totally possible. It just requires a healthy perspective.
First of all, don't approach sugar with fear. It's true that added sugar (corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, etc.) is not an essential nutrient. But, it's also nothing to be terrified of. Rather, the word to describe how we should approach sugar: awareness. We live in world of black and white nutrition, with lots of talk about things that are all bad or all good. The truth about food is really somewhere in between, and the truth about sugar applies here, too. You'll hear some people say that sugar doesn't matter all that much, that there should be no shame around eating it (I agree with that part). And then there are others that will say sugar is the devil and to be avoided at all costs. Both views are too extreme to be correct. Being aware of how much sugar you're eating is the first step to figuring out the role sugar plays in your own diet and how much (or little) works best for you. In other words, sugar is something to be considered as a part of the whole. What part is it playing for you? Do you crave it when you're stressed or tired? Do you use it to decompress from a bad day? Do you avoid it completely out of fear that it will cause weight gain or a disease? Does it take the place of other nutrients or foods that you need for a balanced diet? Answering these questions first will help you determine how to approach sugar and achieve a healthy diet, and a Registered Dietitian can help you move through this process. Yes, you may be consuming too much on a regular basis, and this can contribute to health problems down the road. But, it's never too late to adjust that and simply approach sugar with the intent of boosting your nutritional balance by making healthier, whole food-based choices (think balanced protein, healthy fats, fruits and veggies!).
TYPES OF SUGAR
Part of evaluating your relationship with sugar is understanding where you find it. And it's here that many people are unaware of how much they are actually consuming, and it's also the place where confusion about natural sugar and added sugar starts to swirl.
To keep it simple, let me start with what I tell all my clients. Fruit is a healthy food. And just because there are some fruits that are higher in natural sugar than others does not mean that those high sugar fruits are worse than the lower sugar ones. All fresh fruit is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber that together assist you in digestion and assimilation (i.e. absorption) of that fruit's nutrients to support good health and disease prevention. Not to mention that those natural sugars provide energy for your cells and muscles to get you through your day.
That being said, where I would caution fresh fruit is with someone who needs to manage their diabetes or insulin resistance as a part of metabolic syndrome. I would also carefully watch fruit intake if someone was eating so much that it was taking the place of valuable proteins, healthy fats and veggies. Again, finding where sugar fits into the whole picture is key.
Generally, speaking I find that 2-3 fresh fruits per day is a good goal for the average adult. Consuming 2-3 fresh fruits gets you almost halfway to the recommendation of 9 servings of fruits and veggies combined, while allowing room for veggies, proteins and healthy fats at meals and snacks.
With added sugar, the process can be a bit more complicated. For the average person with no medical diagnoses that require a low carb or reduced sugar diet (diabetes, seizures, etc.), aiming to keep added sugar to 20 grams or less per day is a good starting point. To some, that may sound like a lot of added sugar! But, think about all of the savory foods you eat that actually contain added sugars: bread, pasta sauce, salad dressings...just to name a few. Keeping your added sugar to 20 grams with these common ingredients in mind can actually be a challenge! And also a great starting point. Take inventory of the foods you typically buy at the store, and then look at their ingredients lists. Do you see syrup, sugar or juice on the label as an ingredient? That's added sugar. The FDA recently updated requirements for food labels to include a line for "Added Sugar" specifically under total sugar amount, so that you can clearly see how much of the total sugar in a food is added and how much is naturally occurring. Dairy is a great example of this. Milk has naturally occurring sugar. In fact, a glass of milk contains about 12 grams naturally occurring sugar! Many people look at this and think that they should avoid it. However, it's more important to consider added sugar when looking to reduce your total intake. I'd rather you consume natural sugar from nutrient-rich whole food sources than perhaps fewer grams of refined sugar from a processed food. In other words, 12 grams of natural sugar from milk or berries is often a better choice than 10 grams of added sugar from a protein bar or "healthy" snack food sweetened with fruit juice.
Focus first on filling up your diet with sugar from natural sources (e.g. fruit, dairy, whole grains, some starchy veggies), and you'll find that there is only a little room for the added stuff. That natural limit that's created by filling up your meals and snacks with the whole foods first can boost your nutrition while seamlessly moderating those useless added sugar grams!