In our latest conversation with Cynthia Sass (MPH, MA, RD, CSSD), Upgraid's nutrition consultant the health risks associated with added sugar and whether sugar is something that should be curbed or entirely avoided.
Upgraid: What are some of the health risks associated with added sugar?
Cynthia Sass: According to a report from the American Heart Association (AHA)1, increases in sugar intake over the past three decades parallel weight gain, and excess sugar consumption is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, which remains the leading killer of both men and women in the United States.
The AHA recommends that women limit added sugar consumption to no more than six teaspoons worth per day, and men no more than nine teaspoons worth daily. Every four grams of added sugar equals one teaspoon, which translates to a maximum advised intake of 24 grams of added sugar daily for women and 36 grams for men. There is no recommendation to limit naturally occurring sugar found in whole, unprocessed foods.
Upgraid: Why is added sugar specifically singled out?
Cynthia Sass: The distinction between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar is important for a few reasons. First, naturally occurring sugar is found in foods that are health protective, including fresh fruit, and vegetables like carrots and sweet potato. These foods provide naturally occurring sugar that is bundled with fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other bioactive compounds that optimize wellness and reduce disease risk. Added sugar is often found in foods that are highly processed, stripped of nutrients and fiber, and may trigger inflammation. Added sugar is generally also more concentrated. For example, 14 jellybeans contain 33 grams of sugar, compared to 14 grams of naturally occurring sugar in one cup of blueberries.
Upgraid: Would it be best to cut out added sugar completely?
Cynthia Sass: No. Eliminating added sugar completely isn’t necessary. It may also interfere with a healthy social life and mental health. It’s perfectly OK to enjoy some added sugar daily within the recommended guidelines, particularly when one’s overall eating pattern is consistently healthful, and includes plenty of produce and nutrient rich whole foods.
Upgraid: What’s the best way to moderate and manage added sugar intake?
Cynthia Sass: A few key strategies can help you cut back on added sugar and monitor your intake. Here are seven simple shifts:
- First, eat fewer packaged and processed foods. Whole foods in their natural state contain no added sugar; so increasing your intake of unprocessed foods can automatically reduce your added sugar consumption.
- Use Nutrition Facts labels to check the grams of added sugar per serving when available. The newly revised Nutrition Facts labels mandated by the Food and Drug Administration list the added sugar content of a packaged food in grams. However, smaller food companies have until 2021 to adopt the new labels.
- Scan ingredient lists to scope out terms that indicate sugar has been added to a food. Label reading can help you identify products within the same category that contain less or no added sugar, such as cereals, soups, dressings, and sauces.
- Buy unsweetened versions of foods like yogurt and plant milk and sweeten them yourself if needed. This allows you to control the type and amount of sweetener you use.
- Dine out less and cook at home more often. Restaurant chefs sometimes use generous amounts of sweeteners in sauces and even in unexpected dishes like sushi.
- Opt for 70% or greater dark chocolate as a go-to treat in place of more heavily sweetened indulgences.
- Consider using a food tracking app, even short term. Tracking can be a helpful way to calculate your daily added sugar intake, and identify where you can potentially cut back.
Upgraid: Are there “healthy” types of added sugar?
Cynthia Sass: Some types of added sugar contain more nutrients and antioxidants than others, such as pure maple syrup, raw honey, and blackstrap molasses. When you use added sugar in your own recipes, such as a smoothie, oatmeal, stir fry, and others, I recommend using more nutritious types when possible. Maple syrup is my personal favorite. However, these ingredients still count towards the recommended AHA cap of no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women, and nine for men.
To learn more about Cynthia Sass, visit her website and blog at https://cynthiasass.com/ and for daily insight into the nutrition world, check out her Instagram.