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Heart Association Says Scale Back the Sweet Tooth

(James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)

Do you have any idea how much added sugar you can safely eat in a day?

The American Heart Association's new statement on the matter, published yesterday in AHA's journal Circulation, may surprise many: While the average American is accustomed to ingesting more than 22 teaspoons -- totaling 350 calories -- of "added" sugar per day, we really shouldn't allow ourselves more than about 10 teaspoons, for a total of 150 calories. (That's for men; women should restrict themselves to no more than 6 teaspoons, for about 100 calories.)

Excess sugar consumption is thought to be a major contributor to Americans' increasing obesity; it's also associated with increased risk of high blood pressure and other conditions that hike the risk of heart disease and stroke.

"Added" sugars encompass those in regular sodas, fruit drinks, candy, baked goods and sweetened dairy products -- anything that's made to taste sweet by adding caloric sweeteners such as sugar and high fructose corn syrup. The term does not include foods that are naturally sweet, such as fruit.

This is an area where menu labeling at chain and fast-food restaurants could really come in handy. It's very hard to know exactly how much added sugar you consume, because sugar shows up in all kinds of packaged and processed foods that don't necessarily taste all that sweet such as salad dressing and spaghetti sauce. Current Nutrition Facts panels on packaged foods list sugar content in grams; a gram of sugar has about 4 calories; a teaspoon of sugar contains around 4 grams.

I've been trying, mostly successfully, to limit sweets in my diet for months now, just because sugar adds nothing but empty calories to my life. Despite a few setbacks, I've found that once I adjusted to not eating candy, baked goods, and lots of ice cream, I don't crave those things the way I once did. (This, from someone who once enjoyed eating marshmallows straight out of the bag!) Which is not to say that I don't indulge now and then. But my indulgences tend to be planned in advance, and I make sure I relish every bite.

Do you struggle with sugar? Any tips or tricks for cutting back?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 26, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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I saw a recent "Food Detectives" on the food channel. It was amazing to see the foods that contain hidden sugars, including salad dressing and ketchup. My tips are to eat fresh fruit when I am craving something sweet. I quit drinking diet sodas this year and instead drink unsweetened, iced green tea (brewed at home). I no longer miss the sodas and I think that my sugar cravings have lessened due to the removal of artificial sweeteners from my drinks.

Posted by: drl97 | August 26, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

If I have sweets at breakfast, it sets me up to crave more sugar the whole day long. Instead, I'll have something savory. Also, I avoid sugar substitutes. I have found that I am more satisfied with a small amount of a high quality dish made with real ingredients than a whole portion of one that is just "not too bad, considering." In general, I avoid processed foods, which means that my salad dressing and pasta sauce are homemade, without any added sugar. Also, if I want sweets, I have to make them, and that is usually more trouble than it's worth.

Posted by: ZF-MD | August 26, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

With the new AHA guidelines on sugar intake, it is a great time to take a step back and consider what it takes to follow a healthy diet. It is important to keep in mind that a healthy diet isn’t about choosing or rejecting a specific food, beverage or nutrient. Rather, it is about making informed, sensible choices based on an individual’s needs.

As you noted in your article, Americans get added sugar from many sources. Soda, sports drinks, sweetened waters and energy drinks contribute just 5.5% of the calories in the average American diet. That means that nearly 95% of our calories come from other foods. No one food, beverage or nutrient group can be held responsible for obesity. It is a combination of poor food choices and a sedentary lifestyle.

I often see patients who have spent years attempting to control their weight with fad diets requiring them to eliminate a food or nutrient group. It is amazing to watch them finally succeed with their weight loss goals once they understand that all food can fit into a healthy diet. Often when patients have made certain foods ‘off limits’ they feel deprived and in a weak moment will binge on the very foods they have tried to eliminate. The key to practicing a healthy diet is to practice moderation.

Virtually all experts agree that to practice a healthy lifestyle, people should consume a variety of foods and beverages while limiting their portion sizes to meet their recommended calorie intake, AND be physically active everyday. Americans need to balance their calorie intake with the appropriate levels of exercise. With this approach, any food or beverage can be a part of a balanced and sensible diet when consumed in moderation.

As a registered dietitian and consultant to food and beverage companies, my message to consumers is simple: Eat a balanced variety of nutrients in moderation and combine that with an active lifestyle.

Posted by: janRD | August 26, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Ketchup doesn't contain "hidden" sugars by my reckoning -- it's so sweet. That level of sweetness generally means added sugars.

The real concern to me isn't foods that we know taste sweet and often contain sugar even when made at home. We know ketchup and sweet salad dressings often have sugar; they're very sweet, and people put sugar in them if they make them at home. Besides, we eat them in small quantities.

The real concern is foods that don't contain added sugars in their homemade versions, but do have plenty of them in store-bought or commercially-made versions.

There's no good reason for a loaf of bread or a frozen package of chicken breasts to contain added sugar, but they often do! Manufacturers know it makes them taste better. The same reasoning leads them to also pump up the levels of added salt/sodium.

It's not right that we can be duped into buying a roasted chicken from the deli section of the grocery store without knowing that it's been injected with a chemical solution of MSG, sugar, salt, and often preservatives.

Canned fruits and vegetables often contain added sugar and salt. Almost all processed foods, prepared foods, or fast food contains it, even if you think you're getting a chicken breast or a burger or a container of potato salad. Salt, sugar, MSG, and other 'seasonings' are usually mixed with or injected into the meat, or in sauces.

Heck, I've even seen processed cheese that lists high-fructose corn syrup on the ingredients list.

I have friends who went on Atkins and had to avoid carbs that didn't come from vegetables or berries. You would be AMAZED at how almost all prepared foods and restaurant foods have had sugar added to them. Cheese sauce! Buffalo wings! Sour dill pickles!

The only way to be safe is to check the ingredients list, and you have to be good at knowing all the other names for added sugar, like corn syrup, rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, anything ending in -ose like dextrose, maltodextrin, and on and on and on...

Posted by: cypherpunks3 | August 26, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I believe the "safe" level of added sugars in one's diet varies from person to person.

I know that my body overreacts to sugars. I experience a spike not only in insulin but also in certain brain chemicals. I might feel great when that happens, but the subsequent downward spike ("crash") and symptoms of withdrawal are not worth the brief high.

Yes, sugar can be addictive. I am a sugar addict. It's not a cocktail party amusement; it has manifested for me in depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability & anger, moodiness, weight gain disproportionate to the calories I ingest, and more.

I cannot eat sugar in moderation. It's not a matter of discipline or willpower; it's a biochemical reality. Oh, and by the way -- refined grains (e.g., white flour) and alcohol do the same things to me.

I no longer consume added sugars or intensely sweet foods such as dried fruit. I no longer consume refined grains (white pasta, bread, pizza, etc.) or alcohol. FOr me, there's no "safe" level of any of these. With these items out of my diet, I am FAR calmer, clear-headed, happy, even-keeled, and productive.

Most people -- including health professionals -- don't understand sugar addiction. We'd all be better off if they were to explore this topic and speak to people who do understand. And it has a strong effect on the health topic du jour, obesity.

Posted by: domystic8 | August 26, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I try to de-sweeten my food at breakfast - if its sweet naturally I mix something not sweet or bland with it. Its also good not to spike your sugar intake - and that includes simple sugars like bread as well.
All simple sugars and starches can eventually cause diabetes if taken in access. I used to get sick from eating too much whole wheat muffins at one time - I learned to put plain yogurt on them and eat half as much bread.

If you like plain yogurt and aren't lactose intolerant - that's the answer.

Posted by: agapn9 | August 26, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

JanRD wrote: "I often see patients who have spent years attempting to control their weight with fad diets requiring them to eliminate a food or nutrient group."
True, fad diets are ineffective, but the AHA's recommendation was about added sugars, which aren't a food group. And though no one food or behavior can be conclusively blamed for obesity, I don't see a need to defend this source of empty calories. I recently stopped eating added sugars, except for a few grams in soymilk, pasta sauce and whole grain bread, and I'm definitely NOT missing out on any essential part of a healthy diet. Just eliminating junk that isn't really food.

(I have a fierce sweet tooth and would love to keep eating that junk, but I know in the long run I'll be healthier and happier without it.)

Posted by: shantybird | August 26, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I am fortunate in that I eliminated as much sugar as reasonably possible from my daily food about four months ago (as well as refined carbs, salt, and fruit), and have never looked back. I've tried to adopt the principles of the Mediterranean diet and been pretty successful. So far, have lost 30 pounds.

The discussion on sugar is thought provoking. Just last week, I saw one of the TV doctors announce that the AHA has concluded that chocolate is beneficial for the cardiovascular system, and those who DO NOT have a weight problem should eat 3 candy bars per week.

Sometimes our information rich society provides so many "general" messages that people just throw their hands up when hearing seemingly contradictory messages. For instance, there have been so many conflicting stories on coffee/cafeine over the years, its difficult to know what is really true. And I recall a period when every time I went to the doctor, someone had decided that total cholesterol now had to be twenty points lower than the last time I was there when my level was "acceptable."

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | August 26, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

It's important to remember that we were born with our sweet tooth - for hunter/gatherers, it makes sense to be attracted to those sweet berries rather than the ones with less energy. However, those folks rarely had a problem with oversupply.

Constant blood sugar level seems to be the ticket to happiness - it's those highs and lows that get us down and cause our body chemistry to respond unfavorably (in the long run, by causing weight gain).

Anecdotal evidence (from my family) shows that we don't get a sugar high and resultant crash when we have eggs or meat with our pancakes and syrup - we do get the sugar shakes later if we only have the pancakes (or waffles) and syrup.

But we all know this - if you eat your sugar with "slow" things (like protein or whole grains) you won't have problems. Unfortunately, much of that added sugar is added to highly processed foods, so the overall effect on blood sugar is even worse.

Posted by: drmary | August 26, 2009 6:49 PM | Report abuse

These are all really helpful, insightful comments! Thanks, everyone! I, too, have taken to drinking home-brewed iced green tea, and I'm a big believer in baking whatever sweets you're going to eat at home; the process of baking is at least as satisfying as the eating.

Posted by: Jennifer LaRue Huget | August 26, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

The AHA's recommmedations to limit added sugars to specific amounts ultimately don't mean anything right now because few people know how much added sugar they are eating. I just checked my refrigerator and found added sugar in steak sauce, ketchup, and Italian dressing. But you can't determine from the label how much of the listed sugars are natural vs added by the manufacturer. One day, they may add a listing for "added sugars" to the nutrient analysis label. -----------Steve Parker, M.D.

Posted by: SteveParkerMD | August 26, 2009 9:57 PM | Report abuse

I've been trying to stop eating any sugar for almost 30 years now. Still do it. Stopping yourself from buying it seems to be the easiest way not to eat it. Unfortunately, that only works when you live alone.

I think that not buying sodas is the easiest thing to cut out. Just tell yourself and everyone around you that the phosphoric acid destroys the stomach lining.

After I drastically cut back in my sweets consumption, stomach aches were pretty much eliminated.

Posted by: cmecyclist | August 28, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I was wondering where honey fits into this discussion, and haven't seen a mention of it so far. I've been trying to cut sugar substitutes out of my diet, and now, for example, add a teaspoon of honey to my oatmeal or Greek yogurt, instead of a pack or two of Splenda. Any thoughts?

Posted by: marykh5 | August 31, 2009 9:28 PM | Report abuse

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