Research tells us fourteen out of any ten individuals like chocolate.
5 Simple Rules for Eating Sugar
Few topics boggle dieters and fitness enthusiasts the way sugar does. Is this simple carbohydrate the key to unlocking elite sports performance? Or is it the chains that drag our country deeper into the obesity epidemic? Annoyingly, the answer is both. But before you throw your hands up in frustration and grab yourself a Twinkie®, let's take a minute to talk about sugar. It's not as complex as it seems. In fact, with just a few guidelines, it's incredibly easy to use these simple carbohydrates for good instead of evil.
Rule #1: Just say "know."
Here's a grossly oversimplified look at how sugar, also known as simple carbohydrates, works. Just as with all carbs, you eat sugar and it's absorbed by your blood, where, if you have the right amount of it, the insulin in your system converts the sugar to energy. However, if you introduce too much sugar into your system, the insulin stores it as body fat. A little stored body fat is fine; the body likes some emergency fuel. However, if your blood sugar spikes too often and the insulin has to work too hard converting fat, this can lead to a variety of health issues, including type 2 diabetes and heart problems.
As we'll discuss later, when your body obtains sugar from natural sources, like fruits and veggies, the process tends to be checked by fiber, which slows absorption. However, when you eat foods with added sugar, this can overwhelm the usual checks and balances, causing problems like those nasty blood sugar spikes. To make matters worse, consuming too much added sugar can cause a host of other problems, including tooth decay, increased triglycerides (or stored fat), and malnutrition (from overconsumption of foods filled with empty calories and deficient in nutrients).
If you wanted one overarching rule to work from, you might choose to avoid added sugars entirely. You'll get all the energy you need from foods with naturally occurring sugar. That said, there are times when refined sugar is okay or even beneficial. If you're able to build yourself a lifestyle completely free of added sugar, nice work. But for the rest of us, the trick is moderation.
Rule #2: Less is more.
One teaspoon of table sugar has 15 calories. Honestly, if you have a couple of cups of tea or coffee in the morning and you dump the proverbial spoonful of sugar in each, that's 30 calories. If the rest of your diet is tight and you're active, it won't matter. If you're trying to lose weight and eating at a severe deficit, you'll probably want to skip those few spoonfuls of sugar, because table sugar is nutritionally void and you want every calorie to count nutritionally. Other than that, though, life's short—enjoy your java.
Rule #3: High fructose corn syrup is the enemy . . .
In a recent study out of Princeton University, two groups of rats were fed a sucrose solution and a high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) solution. The rats that consumed the corn syrup got fatter. "Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity," said study leader Bart Hoebel, "but our results make it clear that this just isn't true, at least under the conditions of our tests."
There are a few possible explanations for this. One is that the ratio of fructose to glucose in HFCS is slightly higher. Another is that in the HFCS manufacturing process, fructose molecules are free and unbound, making them easier to absorb. The fructose in table sugar is bonded to the glucose, which means it requires an extra step to be used.1
Rule #3.5: . . . and it's hiding behind every corner.
And you thought Invasion of the Body Snatchers was creepy . . . Avoiding the obvious sweetened foods like soda, cake, cookies, and pies is only half the battle. Manufacturers add HFCS (as well as other sugars) to a mind-boggling amount of foods because it adds flavor. If it's in a bottle, box, or can, read the ingredients. You'll find sweeteners in everything from ketchup to peanut butter to bread to salad dressing. With a little effort, you can usually find versions of the same food with no added sugars or HFCS that are more nutritious and taste just as good.
Rule #4: No, the sugar in fruit isn't bad for you.
When the low-carb "revolution" hit in the early aughts, fruit was demonized for its sugar content. This is, in a word, ridiculous. Yes, fruit is loaded with sugar, but it's also usually loaded with fiber, which slows sugar absorption, making it an ideal way to get your simple carbs without straining your little insulin buddies. Fruit is also loaded with easy-to-absorb vitamins and minerals. Most fruit is also filled with water, yet another benefit.
Even relatively low-fiber fruits like bananas offer far too many benefits to deny. Bananas, in particular, are rich in electrolytes, which are crucial to sports performance. As I always say, I defy you to introduce me to an overweight person whose biggest indulgence is fruit.
You can think of the ingredients in any Meal replacement shake the same way. Sure, there's a little sugar in there, but the protein and fiber slow absorption, and the massive amount of nutrients makes it all worthwhile.
Rule #5: Occasionally, a hit of straight sugar is a good thing.
Conversely, you just blasted a killer workout. You've blown through your blood sugar and your glycogen, leaving you shaky and tired. Now, getting some sugar in there to recharge quickly wouldn't be such a bad idea. Furthermore, since it'll rush in so fast, it's a great opportunity to add some protein and micronutrients to that sugar blast, because they'll rush into where they're needed just as fast.
If you genuinely gave the workout your all and you're truly wiped out, you won't even come close to storing that sugar as fat.
So there you go. Not so tough, huh? With a little forethought and self-control, keeping an eye on your carbs can be, ahem, a piece of cake.
The average American eats approximately 1,500 pounds of food every year. Of that, 160 pounds are primarily sugar. Of course, sugar is delicious, and I know I'm happier for its existence, but of all the things we consume, it has the least nutritive value. In fact, except for the energy in its calories, there's not much to recommend about sugar. It's a prime source of empty calories, and for those of us who are trying to lose weight, sugar's the first thing we should start trimming from our diets. But here's the problem—despite our best intentions to remove excess sugar from our diet, the food industry has found more and more devious ways of slipping us the sweet stuff. Whether the food industry calls sugar by another name or adds it to foods we never thought would have needed it, our sweet tooth is constantly being bombarded. Fortunately, with stricter labeling laws, we have a fighting chance at cutting back on sugar.
Why does the food industry want to fill us so full of sugar?
It's basically the same as any other industry. For the oil industry to make more money, it needs us to use more of its product by driving more miles. The food industry needs us to use more of its product by eating more calories. The problem is that the American food industry is already producing around 3,900 calories per person per day, which is way more than we need. One solution to this surplus is to sell the food cheaply overseas, which the industry does. The other solution is for Americans to eat more calories. And sugar and its corn-sweetener brethren are great calorie delivery systems, as they pack a huge caloric punch without causing much satiety or feeling of fullness. Most people would probably stop eating steak after they reached 1,000 calories, because they'd be stuffed, but after you drank 1,000 calories from your Big Gulp®cup, there'd still be room for dinner. The other reason the industry pushes sugar so hard is that it's cheap to produce, and the cheaper the calorie, the larger the profit margin.
Sugar in labels—hiding in plain sight.
One of the best ways to disguise the amount of sugar in a product is something the government already requires—printing the information in grams. Most Americans only have the foggiest idea of how much a gram is, because we're unaccustomed to the metric system. So when we pick up a can of soda that contains 40 grams of sugar, we pretty much shrug our shoulders and pop the top. And that attitude is all right with the soda industry! But what if the label said that it contained over 10 teaspoons of sugar? If you saw someone ladling 10 teaspoons of sugar into their morning coffee, you'd think they were crazy, but that's how much people consume in a typical 12-ounce can. A 64-ounce fountain drink you'd get at a movie theater or a convenience store contains more than 53 teaspoons of sugar—almost two cups! Naturally, people would probably think twice if the nutritional information on products was given in measurements that were meaningful to them. But until our heavily food industry–subsidized government decides to change its policy, it's a metric world, we just live in it. But we can take note that four grams equals one teaspoon. So when you check out the label, divide the grams of sugar by four, and that's how many teaspoons you're consuming.
Sugar, by any other name, would taste just as sweet.
Another strategy the sugar pushers use to get us to consume more calories is to rename the offending ingredient. We know to stay away from sugar, but how about molasses, honey, sorghum, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup (HCFS), glucose, fructose, lactose, dextrose, sucrose, galactose, maltose, or concentrated juices like grape or apple? Another path to profit that the food industry has discovered is that instead of harvesting relatively more expensive sugar cane and beets, they can produce sweeteners in a laboratory more cheaply and with just as many calories as beet and cane sugar. And with some sweeteners, especially the popular HCFS, it is believed that your body will be less likely to reach satiety than with sugar, so you can consume more. Mo' calories, mo' money. Another advantage to these doses of -oses is that, aside from the fact that many people won't guess they're just different forms of sugar, they can be spread out in the ingredient list required by law, so it won't be as obvious that what you're consuming is pretty much all sugar. When you look at a list of ingredients on a product, the manufacturer is required to list them in order of amount, from highest to lowest. So they can bury a quarter cup of fructose, a quarter cup of sucrose, a quarter cup of dextrose, and a quarter cup of corn syrup in the middle of the list, so you won't be as likely to notice that when you add them all up, the main ingredient in the product is sugar.
Hide and seek. You're it.
So, if you're like me, you may have sworn off soda except for special occasions, and turned the candy bowl into an unsalted-almond bowl. No more sugar, no more problems. Except for this problem—the food industry has cleverly snuck its sugars into products where we never would have thought to look for sugar. It's good for the manufacturer. It jacks up the calorie load, can enhance the product's appearance (high fructose corn syrup gives hamburger buns their golden glow), and can keep our sugar jones simmering at a low boil, in case we ever decide to go back to the real thing. Here are some types of products whose labels could bear more scrutiny.
- Spaghetti sauce. A half cup of store-bought sauce can contain as many as three teaspoons of corn syrup or sugar. While some of the naturally occurring sugar in tomatoes and other vegetables will show up on the nutrition label, most of the sugar is added. Look for brands that don't include sugar or its aliases or make your own from fresh or canned tomatoes.
- Ketchup. Ketchup can be 20 percent sugar or more. Not to mention that you'll get 7 percent of your daily sodium allowance in one tablespoon. Look for low-salt, no-sugar brands, or make your own, using pureed carrots to add flavor and texture to the tomatoes.
- Reduced-fat cookies. Most brands of cookies now offer a reduced-fat version of their product. Nabisco® even offers its own line of low-fat treats, Snackwell's®. But while you're patting yourself on the back for choosing the low-fat option, check the label. The sneaky food manufacturers did take out the fat, but they replaced it with, you guessed it, sugar. Many times, the reduced-fat cookie is only slightly less caloric than the one you want to eat. And because there's no fat to make you feel full, you'll be tempted to eat more "guilt-free" cookies. And just because there's less fat, it doesn't mean you'll be less fat. Fat doesn't make you fat. Calories make you fat.
- Low-fat salad dressing. As with low-fat cookies, manufacturers have taken the fat out of the dressing, but they've added extra salt and sugar to make up for it. Check the label to make sure you're not replacing heart-healthy olive oil with diabetes-causing sugar—because that's not really a "healthy choice." Your best bet? Make your own vinaigrettes using a small amount of olive oil, a tasty gourmet vinegar or fresh lemon juice, and some fresh herbs.
- Bread. Most processed breads can contain a good bit of sugar or corn syrup. As always, check the ingredient label, and consider getting your bread at a real bakery or a farmers' market—it's the best idea since, well, you know.
- Fast food. Needless to say, fast food is generally not good for you. But even if you're staying away from the sodas and the shakes, everything from the burgers to the fries to the salads is a potential place to hide sugar. Check out the ingredients carefully at your favorite restaurant. You may be getting more than you bargained for.