The World Health Organization recently issued new guidelines recommending that children and adults get less than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars. Leia Kedem, a registered dietitian and nutrition and wellness educator for the University of Illinois Extension, dishes up healthy lifestyle advice online as Extension’s “Moderation Maven.” Kedem spoke recently with News Bureau education social work Sharita Forrest about how to be a smart cookie with the sweet stuff.
The WHO’s new guidelines call for reducing consumption of “free sugars.” Where are we getting most of our added sugars, and why do they pose health risks?
Sugars are added to many foods, even salad dressings, sauces and breads. Even foods that we assume are healthier – such as yogurt, granola bars, flavored milks and smoothies – can have a lot of extra sugar. Yet the majority of added sugars come from beverages – soda, juices, fruit drinks and dessert-like coffees.
Added sugars translate to added calories that, if not burned off through physical activity, cause weight gain. And sugary foods are often empty calories, meaning they have few nutrients. It is indeed possible – and becoming more common – to be overweight and malnourished.
Some health advocates suggest that natural sweeteners, such as honey and agave nectar, are healthier than granulated sugar. Should we limit all forms of sugar?
Natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and agave nectar are not necessarily healthier. They may have antioxidants, vitamins and minerals not found in plain sugar, but usually not in significant amounts.
Although marketed as natural, many of them are highly refined and processed. Agave nectar is similar to high-fructose corn syrup in composition. Honey and agave each have 60 calories per tablespoon, compared with 40 calories for sugar.
Small studies have linked honey to improved allergies, better athletic performance and other benefits. While it wouldn’t hurt to replace sugar with honey, it still needs to be limited.
Some natural sweeteners have a lower glycemic index, meaning they may raise blood sugar more slowly, but this doesn’t matter much if you’re consuming other things simultaneously.
Natural sweeteners have largely the same effect as sugar and may contribute to obesity and diabetes.
Recent studies have linked diet soda with obesity, elevated blood sugar and cardiovascular disease. Should we avoid artificial sweeteners, too?
Artificial sweeteners can sweeten food and drinks with far fewer calories and carbohydrates because we can’t digest them, with the exception of aspartame, and they are at least 100 times sweeter than sugar.
Many people report health problems from artificial sweeteners – e.g., migraines, weight gain and mood swings – but they have not been linked to any major health problems in the general population.
Although several studies showed an increase in health problems, there are a few issues to consider:
First, just because diet soda is associated with being overweight, it doesn’t mean that diet soda causes weight gain. We may rationalize eating higher calorie foods because we drink diet soda.
Second, many of the studies had small sample sizes.
There is no solid evidence to support claims that artificial sweeteners increase insulin release, sweet cravings or high blood pressure. In fact, they can help with weight management, prevent tooth decay and help people manage their blood sugar.
Burger King and other fast-food restaurants are removing sodas from their children’s menus. While fruit drinks, chocolate milk and sport drinks generally are considered healthier than soda, are they indeed better choices?
Fruit drinks, sports drinks and flavored water are similar to soda in nutritional content. Sports drinks can be useful during long exercise sessions, but they are not needed by most people.
One-hundred-percent fruit juice is a better choice than fruit drinks, but juice should be limited, too, because it’s a concentrated source of calories and sugar.
Because chocolate milk has essential nutrients, it is arguably a healthier choice than soda.
One study found that when schools in Oregon banned chocolate milk, students drank less milk. Their sugar intake decreased, but so did their intake of essential nutrients – protein, calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins.
As a dietitian, I would rather parents let their kids drink chocolate milk but give kids fewer cookies and other sweets.
What are some easy ways to reduce one’s sugar consumption, especially if you have a “sweet tooth”?
Pay attention to foods that have lots of sugar but few nutrients, such as packaged foods and sweetened beverages. Enjoy them less often and in smaller amounts.
Read nutrition labels and seek out nutrition information when ordering food. If you want an iced mocha coffee, choose lower-sugar foods and drinks the rest of the day and get more physical activity.
Try alternatives like diet soda, sparkling water or sugar-free drink mixes. Water is the best choice, but it can be a difficult transition. Infuse water with flavor by adding sliced fruit, a squeeze of lemon or even cucumber slices.
To tame a sweet tooth, choose naturally sweet foods like fruit. But if you’re craving ice cream, go out for a cone instead of buying a carton.
Individually wrapped chocolates and 100-calorie packs can help satisfy cravings. But store them out of sight in the pantry or the back of a cabinet.