Do you really know how many grams of sugar you eat each day?
If you were to tally it up (and I encourage you to do so!), you may be shocked.
We all have those moments when we crave sweet treats like ice cream, cookies, and candy. These sporadic instances are not the topic of this post because the majority of us keep our sugary treats exactly that: treats on special occasions. However, here’s a startling fact: Even when we’re extra cautious only to eat dessert sparingly, we still may be consuming a terrifying amount of what I’ll call “sneaky sugar.”
What is “sneaky sugar”?
“Sneaky sugar” is the sugar that food conglomerates, restaurant chefs, juice makers, and baristas sneak into their products.
Before I really understood or cared about sneaky sugar, my food choices on an average Wednesday may have looked like this:
Coffee — medium nonfat latte
Breakfast — banana + instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal packet
Lunch — peanut butter and jelly sandwich + low-fat, fruit-flavored yogurt
Snack — apple + pretzels
Dinner — pasta topped with veggies, chicken, and tomato sauce + a side salad drizzled with fat-free honey dijon dressing
At the point in my life when I would have eaten this exact menu, I was trying to be as healthy as possible by making smart meal choices and exercising. I wasn’t consuming any outlandishly unhealthy foods like soda or fast food; I was simply shopping at my local supermarket for products I deemed “good for me.” Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that in one of my “healthful” days of eating I was consuming a whopping 92 grams of sugar!
Are you shocked? I was! I must admit that I just did the math twice while typing this post because 1) let’s be honest…I’m not the best at math, and 2) I didn’t believe that number could be true!
Let me break down my sugar math (just so you can double check. As I said…it’s not my strong subject!):
1 cup of nonfat milk (in latte) = 12g
Banana = 14g
Instant flavored oatmeal = 12g
2T of peanut butter = 3g
1T of jelly = 10g
Fruit-flavored yogurt = 7g
Apple = 19g
1 cup of tomato sauce = 10g
2T fat-free honey dijon dressing = 5g
TOTAL = 92g
Now, consider this: If I were to have added just one outlandishly healthy item like a Coca Cola, I’d add another 44g of sugar to that day’s total, making the new total a whopping 136 grams of sugar…in ONE day.
See what I mean by sneaky sugar? It truly adds up.
Americans’ Sugar Intake: Then vs. Now
Check out this handy infographic published by Forbes in 2012: How Much Sugar are American’s Eating? (I know it’s outdated, but you get the point! Also, judging by those graphs, our average daily sugar consumption has likely risen since 2012, which is just terrifying.) In 1822, the average American consumed 45g of sugar every five days. As outlined above, I used to consume twice that amount in just one day! In 2012, the average American consumed 756g of sugar every five days, which means he or she consumed around 151g each day. Considering the amount of sneaky sugar in each of my meals above, this is not surprising.
So, I eat a lot of sneaky sugar. What’s the big deal?
Many of the most knowledgeable and nutrition-centric scientists and doctors attribute our nation’s health crisis to our increased sugar intake. In fact, some have gone so far as to say “the less sugar you eat in your lifetime, the healthier you’ll be.” (By the way, that’s a link to a great podcast episode. I highly recommend you listen to Mark Sisson’s thoughts!)
To summarize this Healthline article, these are the key reasons to avoid sugar:
- Added sugar is full of fructose; we do not need fructose to survive and should avoid it at all costs because it only leads to health problems.
- Sugar contains zero vitamins and/or nutrients.
- The liver turns fructose into fat, leading to fatty liver disease.
- Sugar harms cholesterol and causes insulin resistance, which leads to metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
- Sugar is not filling; in fact, it causes resistance to a hormone called leptin. Leptin resistance actually causes increased hunger. So, the more sugar you eat, the hungrier you are.
- Sugar is addictive.
If you’re still not convinced of the harms of added sugar, then check out That Sugar Film, a documentary in which Damon Gameau eats solely sneaky sugar-containing foods and tracks the steady decline in his body composition and health. It’s incredibly eye-opening (and entertaining!).
How can I avoid “sneaky sugar”?
Honestly, in today’s world, this is not easy. Your local grocery store is jam-packed with processed foods that contain high amounts of added sugar, and all of them are in colorful packages and require zero preparation! Eliminating foods that contain added sugar is tough at first, but it is so worth it. Here are a few tips:
- Read labels! Possibly, chart your daily sugar consumption in the same way that I did above. Your results (like mine) may surprise you and motivate you to jump off the sneaky sugar train!
- When reading labels, realize that sugar goes by many names: corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar syrup, cane crystals, cane sugar, crystalline fructose, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup solids, malt syrup. Don’t be fooled into thinking that “evaporated cane juice” is any healthier than “high-fructose corn syrup”; your body reacts (poorly!) to both.
- Shop the periphery of the supermarket or at farmer’s markets to buy whole foods. This will mean doing more food prep of your own, but it’s really not that difficult. Trust me! I am not a chef (or even a good cook) by any means, but I have gotten into the habit of prepping whole foods for myself. Stay tuned for some of my easy recipes in coming posts…
- Avoid any foods that are marketed to be “low-fat,” “low-sugar,” “healthy,” etc. If a label makes a promise, be skeptical. As the consumer gets wiser, food companies get smarter. If it seems as if they’re trying to sell you something…they are! These foods are often not only high in sugar, but they are also high in carbohydrates and unpronounceable toxic ingredients.
- Know that foods we deem to be “healthy,” like fruit juice, are actually extremely unhealthy. Fruit juice labels make a lot of “healthful” claims, but, in reality, fruit juice contains just as much sugar as a blatantly sugary drink like soda. Fruit juice is lacking the fiber that whole fruits provide, so the sugar from the juice causes an instant insulin spike. One delayed effect of constantly spiking insulin levels is insulin resistance, which, as described above, can lead to a whole host of health issues.
- Reprogram your brain to think of fruit as “nature’s candy.” Sure, fruit is a lot healthier than fruit juice, soda, or processed sugary foods, but it is full of sugar and should be eaten sparingly. (Vegetables, on the other hand, should be eaten in abundance!) Check out this list to make the smartest fruit choices: 11 Best Low-Sugar Fruits.
- If/when your sugar cravings hit, try one of the following solutions:
- Drink a full glass of water (sometimes, cravings stem from dehydration).
- Eat a spoonful of almond or coconut butter.
- Eat a square of an 85%+ cacao bar.
- Eat a small handful of berries.
One final note: When you begin to cleanse sugar from your diet, your body may go through withdrawal, especially if it’s used to receiving 90+ grams of sugar each day! As mentioned above, sugar is addictive; your body reacts to it in the same way it would react to nicotine or other drugs. So, if at first you have headaches and feel terrible, know that those symptoms are normal. Also, consider those symptoms a true sign that you were addicted, and pat yourself on the back for tackling your addiction!
Have you begun to eliminate sneaky sugars from your diet? If so, please share your progress in the comments!
In each blog post, I aim to bring you food for thought (pun intended. Note: my day job is teaching English), but don’t take my word for it! Click on and read all of the links above to become your own expert on this topic; knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the “why” behind each biohack, the easier it will be to stick to it and realize you can’t live without it!
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