Sugar is in almost everything we eat and drink. It occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, and it’s often added to beverages and foods as a flavor enhancer.
It should come as no surprise that high-sugar diets are dangerous. An uncontrolled sweet tooth can lead to health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“Increased sugar intake causes our bodies to release more insulin, which is the main hormone that controls our blood sugar level after eating,” said Julie Benard, MD, a pediatrician and board-certified pediatric obesity medicine specialist with MU Health Care. “Over time, our bodies can stop responding to the level of insulin being released, requiring it to work harder and harder to control blood sugar levels after eating. This can eventually contribute to the development of diabetes, which has known effects on our cardiovascular system.”
Healthy eating doesn’t mean cutting all sugar from your diet. Instead, it means limiting your intake of added sugars that put unnecessary strain on your body. The American Heart Association recommends for women and children to consume less than six teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugars per day and for men to consume less than nine teaspoons (36 grams).
Here are three ways to ensure you and your loved ones consume safe quantities of added sugars:
- Limit Pre-Packaged Foods: These are items families can buy in bulk and store for long periods. While this is convenient, Benard said to pay close attention to sugar content when purchasing these products.
“Sugar in various forms is added to most pre-packaged foods to lengthen their shelf life and boost their flavor,” Benard said. “As a rule of thumb, boxed items should be eaten sparingly — or better yet, completely replaced by less sugary options such as whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.”
- Avoid Sweet Drinks: Benard said many seemingly healthy beverages are actually loaded with sugar.
“People usually don’t think twice about drinking milk and fruit juice throughout the day,” she said. “But even 100-percent fruit juice contains a lot of sugar without the added benefit of fiber that comes from a whole piece of fruit. Also, flavored milks such as chocolate or strawberry milk are often perceived as being healthy, but in reality, sugar is added in order to flavor the milk, making it an unattractive option.”
Laurie Sax, a MU Health Care dietitian, said it can be challenging for families to replace sweet drinks with less exciting options such as water or unflavored milk.
“If you choose to quit cold turkey, consider swapping your current sweet drink of choice with a zero-calorie sweet drink to bridge the sweetness gap,” Sax said. “Then, slowly phase it out by diluting the drink until you’re able to enjoy plain water or milk. For children between 2 and 5 years old, skip the zero-calorie drinks and switch straight to plain water or milk.”
- Don’t Fall for Marketing Gimmicks: Food brands love to plaster their packaging with fun illustrations and words such as “healthy,” “lean” and “low-fat.” Sherly Cherian, a MU Health Care dietitian who works alongside Benard and Sax at MU Children’s Hospital’s Tigers on Track clinic, said savvy consumers should look past these marketing gimmicks and assess each item’s nutritional information and ingredient list.
“Many food packages have attractive marketing with superhero themes that distract both parents and children from their unhealthy ingredients and high sugar content,” Cherian said. “Cereal companies are especially guilty of this. If you read the nutritional information carefully, you will see that many ‘healthy’ options are actually high in sugar and low in protein.”
Cherian also said people assume sports drinks are healthy because they are endorsed by athletes. In reality, these beverages are extremely high in sugar, and they should only be consumed as fuel during prolonged periods of exercise. Otherwise, your body will convert the sugar into fat.