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 caloric sweeteners, like high fructose corn syrup, this total bumps to 152 pounds per year, according to the USDA. According to a conversion by WebMD, that’s equivalent to 38 teaspoons in one day.
That number may sound so astronomically high it seems impossible. 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:
- 12-ounce Can of Coca-Cola: 39 grams of sugar
- 1 Packet of Quaker Strawberries & Cream Instant Oatmeal: 12 grams of sugar
- 2 tablespoons of Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey Barbecue Sauce: 32 grams of sugar
- Nesquick 16-ounce Fat-Free Chocolate Milk: 54 grams of sugar
Even a regular cup of milk innocuously hides 16 grams of the sweet stuff.
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 (9 grams) per day. Most of us, however, consume much, much more than this.
The Negative Health Effects of Sugar
There are some serious negative side effects of 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. Cynthia Sass, a nutritionist and dietician interviewed by CBS, aptly explains what happens when we eat sugar. She 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 gets.
When blood thickens, it’s much harder to pump through your body. 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 serotonin, providing a natural high. Research shows, however, that this “high” is just as addictive as the high caused by alcohol or drugs – and that’s a big reason why so many people crave sugary foods and 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
Dr. Robert Lustig explains to NPR how sugar negatively affects the liver. 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, such as by drinking soda or fruit juice, your body is flooded with sugar and your liver can’t keep up. This leads to weight gain, as well as metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver disease, ovarian disease, and possibly cancer and dementia.
Kicking the Sugar Habit
Some doctors and researchers, like Dr. Lustig, believe that sugar needs to be regulated just like alcohol and tobacco, with extra fat taxes and age limits. Others argue this is too unrealistic. It also removes the aspect of personal responsibility, which is a big part of living a healthy, balanced life.
I’ve struggled with sugar myself. One of my top priorities in life is to live healthily. 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. I work from home, and I found myself snacking continuously throughout the day as one sugar craving led to the next. Once I heard the NPR interview with Dr. Lustig, I knew the sugar had to go.
Has it been easy? At first, absolutely not. But over the past four months, it’s gotten progressively easier. And it’s absolutely worth the effort. I look better, I feel great, and I’m no longer on the up-and-down cravings roller coaster.
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 it’s cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup, foods that come in a box, can, or jar overwhelmingly contain a great amount of added sugars. Not only does this help make processed foods more palatable, but it also extends shelf life.
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 contains sugar, it 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 1 ounce and you end up pouring 3 ounces on your pasta, 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 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 them tastes funny to me.
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, barbecue sauce, and other marinades. These items are often expensive in addition to being loaded with sweeteners.
3. Don’t Totally Deny Yourself
Giving up sugar cold turkey isn’t a good idea for most people. It’s often best to make small changes over time so you don’t experience a strong negative reaction.
Complete denial may make you binge later, so it’s OK to occasionally give in a bit to your sugar cravings. Have a small piece of dark chocolate with a handful of almonds, or eat a banana with peanut butter. 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 to cut down on the sugar overload that most of us have grown accustomed to.
If you find yourself craving a piece of cake or a glass of 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 it 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 them 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, 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 won’t be tempted to consume them.
I know 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 firsthand 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?