What's so bad about sugar?

May 23, 2023 | by Toni Havala, MS, RD, LDN

It is way too easy to go heavy on the white stuff.

By white stuff, I mean refined carbohydrates found in processed foods and sugary treats. It’s convenience food. Fast food. It’s everywhere!

But it’s not very healthy. The process of turning whole grains into refined carbs strips out nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The sugary, starchy end products are quickly digestible carbs which cause a quick rise in blood sugar.

That rise in blood sugar eventually leads to a steep crash, followed by irritability, hunger, fatigue (that 3 p.m. snack craving) and even headaches and premature aging of your skin.

Excess refined carbs can also be dangerous for your long-term health, and lead to chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity.

It’s tough to get around them if you don’t have a plan. Not only are restaurants and grocery store options laden with refined carbs, the portion sizes today are massive.

In 1996, a typical plain bagel had a three-inch diameter and about 140 calories. Today, a typical plain bagel is twice as large with about 350 calories. In 2010, the average American put away more than 132 pounds of added sugar. In the 1800s, the average was 12 pounds.

It may not seem like a big deal, but it’s important to make an effort to eat good-for-you, appropriately-sized portions. Your health depends on it!

So how much sugar is okay?

Consider this rule of thumb: a healthy amount of sweets for an adult woman to eat in a day would amount to 150 calories (about 10 percent of total daily calorie needs). That’s how many calories are in four Oreo cookies or a 12-ounce can of pop. Men should keep their sweets to 200 calories per day.

Remember that many foods have natural sugar (dairy products and fruit, for example) and added sugar. Nutrition labels just state total sugar, which makes it impossible to figure out how much sugar was added. So in general, compare products in the grocery store and choose the one with the least sugar.

When it comes to cereal and granola bars, for example, look for products with 5 grams of fiber or more per serving and less than 9 grams of sugar per serving.
Don’t overdo the starch, either.

Since starches contain sugar and carbs, limit yourself to one starch — bread (including biscuits, rolls, muffins, waffles, pancakes and tortillas), rice, pasta, potatoes, corn, cereal — per meal. Instead of pasta with garlic bread, have pasta with a salad. Instead of mashed potatoes with corn, swap in broccoli.

Check your portion size

Follow these guidelines for single-serving portion sizes — and limit yourself to one serving:

  • 3/4 cup or under of pasta, potatoes, rice or corn (tennis ball size)
  • 1 small baked potato (size of a computer mouse)
  • 2 slices sandwich bread
  • 1 tennis ball-sized muffin or roll 
  • ½ bagel
  • 2- 6” pancakes (CD sized)
  • 2 taco sized tortillas
  • 1 cup of cereal

All carbs are not created equal

Your body needs some carbohydrates — so choose healthy carbs like legumes (kidney, black, garbanzo, pinto and navy beans) and lentils; fruit (limit to 2 cups daily); milk or milk alternatives; and whole grains, like 100 percent whole wheat bread and oatmeal.

Sometimes it takes a little digging to find whole grain foods. Don’t let tricky labels fool you — so many products are marketed as “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100 percent wheat” or “bran.” But those foods don’t necessarily contain whole grains that are so important for good health.

Look at the product’s ingredient list to figure out if it contains a significant amount of whole grains. The first ingredient should have the word “whole,” “oats” or “oatmeal” in it.

You don’t have to live on whole wheat alone — change things up! Try to incorporate a variety of whole grains into your diet, including barley, spelt, whole wheat couscous, polenta, oats and farro.

Tame the sugar beast before it strikes

It’s 3 p.m., you’re at your desk or in your car and you’re starving. A candy bar would tide you over, right? Or a bag of chips from the vending machine?

Don’t do it! Try these tactics to tame sugar cravings throughout the day:

  • Eat regularly. Waiting too long between meals sets you up for a sugar splurge. Eat every 3-4 hours throughout the day and always start the day with breakfast.
  • Get enough sleep. Being overtired causes carb cravings. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep nightly.
  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration can be confused with hunger. Divide your weight in pounds by half.  That’s the average amount (in ounces) of water you should be drinking daily.
  • Skip artificial sweeteners (like the ones in diet soda). They cause cravings for other sweet foods.
  • Change your routine. Often cravings are linked to a certain activity, such as watching TV. Find something else to do to break the cycle.
  • Keep treats that trigger overeating out of the house. Go grocery shopping full and focused on your goals. Keep irresistible treats out of the shopping cart! 
  • Get support. Many people turn to sweets when they’re upset. Food doesn’t solve emotional issues and may make them worse. Deal with emotional stress by talking with a friend or a health professional.
  • Exercise daily. Exercise is nature’s anti-depressant and can take away the blues that can lead to sweet cravings.

Win the battle against sugar cravings

If a sugar craving strikes, there are some things you can try before giving in.

  • Grab some gum. Studies have shown that gum reduces food cravings.
  • Take a hike. Put on your walking shoes and get moving. You will feel better and distract yourself from the impulse to eat.
  • Have a piece of fruit. Tell yourself you can have the less healthy sweet after you eat the fruit. You will want less of the unhealthy sweet or may not want it at all.
  • Think small. Allow yourself to have a small portion of the dessert to savor. Eat it slowly and without distractions.
  • Reward yourself. Keep a jar filled with slips of paper filled with things you can do that you enjoy. Pick one if you’re having a craving and treat yourself without food! Examples include buying new music or calling a friend you haven’t talked to in a while.
  • Take a time out. Set a timer for 10 minutes and tell yourself you can have the sweet, but only after the timer goes off. Chances are the impulse will fade.

Take the 5-minute test that could save your life.

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