The Sweet Danger of Sugar
Ways to Enjoy Healthier Holiday Fare
by Christy Ratliff
Chocolate Santas, decorated cookies and other sweet confections are ingrained in our holiday traditions, yet sugary food does little to actually make us feel merry and bright in the long run.
A high-sugar diet increases the risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol, inflammation, weight gain and weight-related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. It can also contribute to tooth decay and acne. “Most high-sugar foods are ‘treats’ and are not intended to be high in nutrition or consumed instead of healthier foods,” says Shelley Maniscalco, registered dietitian and CEO of the consulting firm Nutrition on Demand, in Arlington, Virginia. “When we have too many foods that are what we call calorie-dense versus nutrient-dense, we run the risk of displacing healthier foods, and, therefore, under-consuming key nutrients.”
This can impact mental health and impair the body’s ability to manage stress. “When we eat nutritious foods, and our gut is healthy, we obtain necessary nutrients to create neurotransmitters, which are key to optimal mental health,” explains Maggie Roney, a licensed counselor and certified functional medicine provider in Wylie, Texas. “There’s mood-stabilizing serotonin, which is a precursor for melatonin, needed for sleep; dopamine, involved in pleasure, focus and motivation; and GABA, which provides a calming effect that can help with stress and anxiety. All of these require amino acids, zinc, iron, vitamin D, magnesium, copper and B vitamins.”
In moderation, sugar is not necessarily detrimental to our health and well-being, but differentiating between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar is key to finding a middle ground. “New changes in the food label allow consumers to more easily identify sources of sugar in foods,” Maniscalco says. “Many healthy foods naturally contain sugars, such as fructose in fruits and lactose in dairy products. These natural sugars don’t need to be avoided. When checking the label, look for amounts of added sugars and choose the options that have less.”
Foods and beverages with added sugars are now required to list the number of grams and percent daily value for added sugars on the nutrition facts label. For example, a container of yogurt with fruit on the bottom might list total sugars at 15 grams (g), including 7 g of added sugar, which means 8 g of naturally occurring sugars.
In a society long obsessed with counting calories, we may assume we’re making smart choices with low-fat, non-fat, reduced calorie or light versions of grocery items. But, the amount of added sugar is actually higher in low calorie versions of a wide variety of foods because sugar is used to compensate for the loss of flavor from fat. “Sugar tastes good and balances out other flavors, so many foods that we wouldn’t consider sweet have added sugars,” says Colleen Tewksbury, Ph.D., bariatric program manager and senior research investigator at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “Common products include pasta sauce, cereal and salad dressing. Reading food labels looking specifically for added sugars is key to finding these foods.”
“Hidden sugars are often found where we least expect them,” adds Ricardo Díaz, chef and registered dietitian nutritionist at the New York-based nonprofit Wellness in the Schools, which works to improve nutrition in school lunches. “Many savory or salty foods tend to have added sugars, such as tortilla chips, popcorn, jerky and frozen prepared foods. Check your labels and compare between products on the supermarket shelves to find the healthiest pick for you and your loved ones.”
“Often, we think of eating in ‘all or nothing’ terms. When we cut out foods we enjoy, it often backfires and we end up overeating them in the end when our willpower runs out,” Maniscaclo says. “I would really encourage mindfulness in eating so that individuals can enjoy treats in moderation and feel satisfied by them so that there’s less need to over consume. Also, being physically active year-round is a great habit to get into and can create more space in the diet for treats.”
As we implement these small but significant low-sugar strategies, we’ll be rewarded with better physical and emotional health all year long. That’s something to celebrate.
Christy Ratliff is a professional health and wellness writer based in Central Florida.
Tips to Eat Less Sugar
Chef and dietitian nutritionist Ricardo Díaz:
Swap out fruit juice cocktails and fruit juice concentrates for whole fruits and 100 percent fruit juice. Fruit beverages rely on added sugar to provide much of their sweetness.
Choose whole grains over enriched grains. Include a variety of whole grains in your diet, such as oats, brown rice or whole-wheat pastas and breads.
To maximize fiber intake, pick products labeled “100% Whole Grains” over labels stating “Whole Grains” or “Multigrain”.
Make your own baked goods. Besides controlling the amount of sugar in your treats, baking at home is a great way to get your youngest family members involved in cooking.
Shelley Maniscalco, MPH, RD:
Eat fruit. Most are naturally sweet and provide healthy nutrients without a lot of calories. As an added bonus, the fiber and water content in fruit helps with feeling satiated.
Add spices and fresh herbs. Studies show that adding them enhances flavor, and it also lowers the use of such unhealthy nutrients as added sugars, sodium and saturated fats.
Colleen Tewksbury, Ph.D., RD:
Choose plain yogurt, as it contains no added sugar. Top it with fresh fruit, cinnamon or nuts. Choose yogurt that contains live and active cultures, as these promote gut health and boost immunity.
Nearly a quarter of added sugars consumed come from sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas and fruit drinks, even more than from desserts and sweets. A simple way of reducing added sugar is reducing intake of sugar-sweetened beverages. Three approaches are: setting a frequency goal (limit to x times per week); setting a portion goal (limit to x ounces per day); or setting a substitution goal (replace sugar-sweetened beverages with sugar-free options).
Jennifer Martin-Biggers, Ph.D., RDN:
To reduce sugar intake, as with any other new habit or behavior change, it’s important to set manageable goals and set new ones as you go.
Another way to support dietary changes is through supplementation. The mineral chromium, in particular in the form of chromium picolinate, has been shown in clinical studies to reduce food cravings.
Watch That Sugar Film, a 2014 Australian documentary/drama directed by Damon Gameau at WatchDocumentaries.com/that-sugar-film. According to New York Times film critic Daniel M. Gold, “The food-doc shelf is crowded with good-for-you movies, including Fed Up, Fast Food Nation, Food Inc. and, yes, Super Size Me. That Sugar Film is a worthy addition, entertaining while informing.”