You might have heard that Americans consume more sugar than any other nation on Earth. It’s a bold statement; after all, there are more than seven billion people on the planet. But it’s true. Americans eat the equivalent of 17 four-pound bags of sugar per person every year. That’s 68 pounds! If you add in the total caloric sweeteners, like high fructose corn syrup, this total bumps to 152 pounds per year, according to the USDA.
Eating 152 pounds of sugar may sound like an astronomically high number. But once you start thinking about our eating habits and the amount of processing that goes into most foods, it becomes easier to see how those pounds add up.
Sugar Hides Everywhere
Take a look at the sugar content of several common foods and beverages: A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola has 39 grams of sugar. One packet of Quaker Strawberries & Cream Instant Oatmeal contains 12 grams of sugar. Two tablespoons of Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey Barbecue Sauce contains 32 grams of sugar. Nesquick’s 16-ounce Fat Free Chocolate Milk has 54 grams of sugar. And a regular cup of milk innocuously hides 16 grams of the sweet stuff.
These are just a few things an average person might eat or drink in a day. And yet, all this totals up to 153 grams of sugar. According to a conversion by WebMD, that’s equivalent to 38 teaspoons – in one day. And that doesn’t even include any other foods or snacks!
The American Heart Association states that women should only eat five teaspoons (20 grams) of sugar per day, and men should only eat nine teaspoons (36 grams) per day. Kids need only three teaspoons (nine grams) per day. Most of us, however, consume much, much more than this.
The Negative Health Effects of Sugar
As you can imagine, there are some serious negative side effects to eating such great quantities of sugar:
1. Sugar Causes Heart Stress
CBS News reports that sugar, more than any other substance, is linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. And Cynthia Sass, a nutritionist and dietician interviewed by CBS, aptly explains what happens when we eat sugar.
Sass advises readers to picture their blood as a glass of water. The more sugar you pour into that water, the thicker and more syrupy it’s going to get. When blood is thick like this, it puts a real strain on your heart. After all, thick, syrupy blood is much harder to pump through your body than normal, healthy blood. So it puts stress on your heart and your arteries, as well as your liver and kidneys as they try to filter out the deluge of sugar.
2. Sugar Is Addictive
Another negative effect of sugar is that it’s a simple carbohydrate. Eating it releases the feel-good brain chemical called serotonin, providing a natural high. Research shows, however, that this “high” is just as addictive as the high caused by alcohol or drugs – and is a big reason why so many people crave sugary foods or drinks, especially when they’re depressed or under stress.
Sugar also spikes your insulin levels, causing you to “crash” a short time later. You’re then left craving another sugar high to feel better and satisfied again.
3. Sugar Causes Weight Gain and Diabetes
In February 2012, NPR interviewed Dr. Robert Lustig, who explained how sugar negatively affects the liver. The reason sugar is so harmful to the liver is because many foods and drinks with a lot of sugar contain almost no fiber. Fiber is incredibly important to your liver because it delays the absorption of sugar, which means that when you eat fiber, your liver has a chance to process the sugar slowly. This, in turn, means your pancreas doesn’t have to produce extra insulin to help the liver do its job.
However, when you consume sugar without the fiber (like drinking soda or fruit juice) your body is flooded with sugar, but your liver can’t keep up. This leads to weight gain, as well as metabolic diseases such as type II diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver disease, ovarian disease, and possibly cancer and dementia as well.
Kicking the Sugar Habit
Some doctors and researchers, like Dr. Robert Lustig, believe that sugar needs to be regulated just like alcohol and tobacco, with extra fat taxes and age limits. Although I’m a big proponent of cutting back on sugar consumption, this is just too unrealistic. It also removes the aspect of personal responsibility – and personal responsibility is a big part of living a healthy, balanced life.
I’ve struggled with this myself, and one of my top priorities in life is to live healthy. For instance, I practice yoga and eat a plant-based diet. Several months ago, I took another step: I resolved to drastically reduce my sugar consumption. The reason is because I work from home, and I found myself “snacking” continuously throughout the day as one sugar craving led to the next. Once I heard that NPR interview with Dr. Robert Lustig back in February, I knew immediately that the sugar had to go.
Has it been easy? At first, absolutely not. But over the past four months it has gotten progressively easier. And it’s absolutely worth the effort – I look better, I feel great, and I’m no longer on that up-and-down roller coaster of cravings.
How to Reduce Your Sugar Intake
If you’d like to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, there are several easy ways to get started:
1. Limit Processed Foods
Whether cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup, foods that come in a box, can, or jar overwhelmingly contain a great amount of added sugars. A large majority of processed foods have added sugars because not only does it help make them more palatable, but sugars extend shelf life as well.
One of the best things you can do to cut out sugar is to avoid these processed foods. Instead, try to eat natural foods, like fruits and vegetables. Although fruit does contain sugar, it also comes with the necessary fiber that helps your body process it more slowly.
If you do buy processed foods, read the labels carefully. Food labels are often deliberately misleading. Pay attention to sugar content per serving, and make sure you figure out how many servings are in each package. It might seem as if there’s a low-sugar count in that jar of spaghetti sauce, but if a serving size is only one ounce (and you end up pouring three ounces into your bowl) you’re getting more sugar than you thought.
2. Make Foods From Scratch
This is one of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to overcome, but I’m happy to say that I eat very little processed food anymore. Making food from scratch tastes so much better, and it enables you to keep unwanted sugar out of your diet.
Eating healthy, natural food made from scratch also changes your awareness over time. For instance, processed foods are just unpalatable to me now; a lot of it tastes funny and I never noticed it before because I was eating those foods frequently.
Even small changes can make a big difference. For instance, many salad dressings contain a lot of sugar, but you can make your own healthier version at home for a fraction of the price. Before I made this switch, I was paying $3.50 for a small bottle of organic ginger dressing. Now I make my own for pennies, and it’s 100% sugar-free.
You can also easily make your own spaghetti sauce (many bottled sauces are loaded with sugar), barbecue sauce, and other marinades. These items are often expensive and, of course, loaded with sweeteners.
3. Give in a Bit
Giving up sugar cold turkey isn’t a good idea – at least not for many people. It may be best to make small changes over time so you don’t experience a strong negative reaction.
Occasionally give in a bit to your sugar cravings, since complete denial may make you binge later. Have a bit of dark chocolate with a handful of almonds. Or, eat a banana with peanut butter (which often contains sugars). If you mix something sweet with something healthy – especially something that contains fiber – you’ll feel fuller and end up eating less sugar.
Another approach is to focus on quality, not quantity. A high-quality truffle savored slowly will be more enjoyable than eating a king-sized Snickers. Whenever you eat a sweet dessert, eat it slowly and pay attention to how it tastes. Mindful eating leaves you more satisfied with less.
The goal here isn’t to cut all the pleasure out of life. It’s simply to cut down on the sugar overload that most of us have grown accustomed to.
If you find yourself craving a gigantic piece of cake or a huge soda, substitute it with something else. Try chewing gum, or eating a big pickle. It sounds funny, but I’ve found that eating a strong-flavored healthy food, such as a pickle, really helps curb a sugar craving. I think it’s because the vinegar is so strong that it just destroys the “taste” of something sweet in your mind.
When it comes to substitutions, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that artificial sweeteners are a good option. While these products often contain zero calories, the National Institue of Health (NIH) and other researchers have linked these artificial sweeteners to weight gain and obesity.
5. Don’t Bring It in the House
This is my biggest weakness when it comes to sugar: If I buy a bag of candy intending to eat “just a bit” for a Friday night treat, it means the bag is in the house all next week. And if I see those dark chocolate Raisinets in the refrigerator come Monday, I’m going to grab a handful at lunch, and another handful after dinner. The bag is gone by Wednesday, and I’ve consumed roughly 190 grams of sugar I wouldn’t ordinarily have eaten.
One easy way to cut sugar out of your diet is to simply not buy it. Or if you must, buy in small quantities. If those sodas, cookies, and fruit juices aren’t in the house, you’re not going to be tempted to consume them.
I know the thought of removing sugar from your diet might sound like more work than it’s worth, especially since it hides in so many foods in the form of high fructose corn syrup. But I can tell you first-hand that lowering your consumption of sugar will help you lose weight, stabilize your mood, improve your energy level, reduce your chance of developing a host of debilitating diseases, and keep your skin looking younger longer.
Just take it slow to start. You may have a lifetime of excessive sugar consumption, and your body and taste buds have grown accustomed to it – so break them in slowly to the new routine. Your body will thank you for taking your time, and you’ll be more likely to stick with your newfound eating habits.
What other tips do you have for cutting sugar out of your diet?