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Food Myths: Added Sugar Is Always Bad for You

Fitday Editor

Sugar has gotten a bad reputation through the years by being linked to weight gain and other adverse health outcomes. However, not all sugars are created equal.

Sugars in your diet can either be of the naturally occurring or added varieties. Naturally occurring sugars are found in foods such as fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). These products provide nutrient-dense additions to your diet, offering wholesome amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein. Added sugars on the other hand, are sugars and syrups that are either put into foods during preparation or processing, or added at the kitchen table. Unlike their natural counterparts, these items tend to be very low in nutritional value, providing very little with their calories.

The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, amounting to an extra 350 calories. For most, added sugars make up at least 10% of their caloric intake. However, about one in 10 people get a whopping one-quarter or more of their calories from added sugar. Sugar-sweetened beverages and breakfast cereals are the two most serious offenders and contributors to this average. Other contributors of added sugar include regular soft drinks, energy drinks, candy, fruit drinks and baked goods.

Bad Additions

Added sugars present a few major issues. First, in consuming foods and beverages which are high in added sugar, such as those soft drinks or sugary baked goods, you're displacing more nutritious foods in your diet. Because they are lacking nutritional components such as fiber, protein or micronutrients, foods that tend to have a lot of sugar added don't provide the satiety that you get from other more healthful foods. Because of this, people tend to consume more calories when they eat foods that contain more sugar, increasing the risk for weight gain and associated problems.

The second major issue with added sugars is that when you add calories on top of what might be a nutritious diet, you are putting yourself at an increased risk for many adverse health outcomes. Much research within recent years has looked at the impact of added sugars (not the sugar naturally occurring in fruits and dairy). They indicate that added sugars put an individual at an increased risk for a poor lipid profile. This can mean higher triglycerides, lower HDL ("good") cholesterol and higher LDL ("bad") cholesterol in the blood.

Spotting the Sugar

To tell if a processed food contains added sugars, take a look at the list of ingredients. Sugar can go by many other names. Besides those ending in "ose," such as maltose or sucrose, other names for sugar include high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, molasses, honey, corn sweetener, cane sugar, syrup or fruit juice concentrates.

Reducing Your Intake

In order to reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet, opt for water rather than the sugary, non-diet sodas or sports drinks. When you drink fruit juice, make sure it's of the 100% fruit juice variety - or even better yet, eat the fruit rather than the juice. Eating naturally sweet fruits and dairy can help to satisfy sweet cravings and provide a more nutrient-dense filler in place of simple sugar treats.

Added sugar in and of itself is not inherently evil. Ultimately, a healthy diet has room for everything in moderation. Indulging in occasional treats is fine if it is balanced with a healthy, wholesome diet. Just keep your total caloric intake in the big picture, make some simple swaps where possible, and you will be able to incorporate the occasional added sugars into any healthy eating plan.


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Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.

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