How to reduce sugar — and why you should

Published on June 5, 2014

Next to gluten, sugar is the top food ingredient which gets vilified. Perhaps this is rightly so, considering the fact that on average most of us consume too much sugar, and high intakes have been associated with obesity, hyperactivity and tooth decay.

Research from earlier this year also shows that excess sugar intake raises the risk of death from heart disease by 20 per cent or more, regardless of other health problems.

One in every five calories that Canadians consume comes from sugar. It may occur naturally, as in fruit and milk, or it may be added to foods and beverages for taste, as in soft drinks, salad dressings, syrups and candies. Our bodies handle naturally occurring and added sugar in the same way. That said, foods high in added sugar tend to have less nutrients, and you are best to avoid these as much as possible.

Stats Canada shows us consuming on average 26 teaspoons of sugar each day. That’s a sweet 88 pounds of sugar a year.

Below are some simple tips to help reduce the amount of added sugar you eat:

Try and identify the sources of sugar in your diet. The main sources of added sugars are sugar-sweetened soft drinks (e.g., pop, iced tea, lemonade, energy drinks, sports drinks), followed by candy, cakes, cookies, pastries, fruit drinks, dairy desserts (like ice cream and sweetened yogurt) and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals.

It can be found in some of the most unlikely of places, too. Seemingly healthy tomato sauces, oatmeal, yogurt, and bottled tea can be full of sugar. The added sugar that Canadians consume accounts for just over 20 per cent of their daily calories. (It’s recommended that we keep added sugars to around 10 per cent of total daily calories, or even better at five per cent). Which brings us into tip No. 2.

Read food labels and be aware of other names for sugar. Brown sugar, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, cane syrup, dextrose, high fructose, fruit-juice concentrate, glucose-fructose, honey and molasses all also mean sugar, more or less. On an ingredient list, ingredients are listed in order according to highest content, so a good rule of thumb is to avoid a product if it’s first three ingredients are any of the words above.

Speaking of nutrition facts tables, unfortunately, there’s no way to look at it and tell how many calories or grams of sugar come from added versus naturally occurring sugar. Say you look at the label on a bag of frozen blueberries; the only ingredient is blueberries, and yet you’ll still see six grams of sugar listed, even though none was added to the bag. That tells you the total amount of sugar here is naturally occurring.

As a reference, four grams of sugar is the same as one teaspoon of sugar, or sugar cube. Ideally, you should have no more than 13 added teaspoons of sugar daily.

Don’t be fooled by claims, either. Foods with a “natural,” “organic,” or even “reduced in sugar,” “less sugar” or “lower in sugar” claim for sugar can still be high in sugar. The latter three are used when a food has at least 25 per cent less sugar than the same reference food, and just because there is less sugar doesn’t automatically mean it’s a healthy low sugar choice. Always refer to the nutrition facts table, and better yet, ingredient list.

Eat homemade, simple foods versus relying on convenience. Breakfast is often a hurried meal, and a lot of packaged foods can be consumed here which are higher in sugar. Instant oatmeal, granola bars, muffins, breakfast cereals, etc. In addition to making your own food, buy plain foods as much as possible. If you eat yogurt or cereal daily, you can make a big difference in your sugar intake by purchasing plain choices, and sweetening them yourself. For cereals, opt for plain oatmeal, cream of wheat, puffed rice or quinoa, shredded wheat. Also try trading sweetened foods for naturally sweet fruits. Try strawberries on PB&J sandwiches instead of jam, dried fruits instead of candies, and opt to have fruit for dessert.

Amanda O’Brien is a registered dietitian in St. John’s.

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