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Why Loads of Sugar Is Bad for Us, and How to Cut Down

By Deepi Brar | April 5, 2016 | Rally Health

Candy, cake, cookies … we’re hardwired to love sweet things, and they often play a starring role our celebrations and parties. But as always, you can have too much of a good thing. Sadly for sweets lovers, there’s more and more evidence that eating high amounts of sugar is bad for our health.

When we talk about sugar, we actually mean a whole class of sweet compounds. The white stuff we usually call sugar is sucrose, a common type that mainly comes from sugarcane. Other sugars include fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar), and glucose (the sugar that powers our cells).

You might have heard the term “added sugar.” It's basically what it sounds like — sugar that is added to a food or drink, unlike sugar found naturally in fruit and other foods. Overall, Americans are eating and drinking less added sugar than before, but it’s still way too much — 13 percent of all our calories come from added sugars (that’s about 20 to 30 teaspoons a day, depending on your total calories)!

Why is sugar bad for you?

Sugars are the simplest form of carbohydrates, and because they’re so easy for our bodies to digest, sugary foods and drinks can cause sudden spikes in our blood sugar levels. This quick hit of energy can be helpful if you’re on a long-distance run, but most of us aren’t exactly burning off the sugar we eat. Besides adding lots of “empty” calories to our diets, over time this extra sugar can lead to weight gain, more belly fat, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.

To keep these health problems in check, new government guidelines say to limit added sugars to 10 percent of daily calories. Many nutrition experts say we should aim even lower, with no more than 5 percent of calories coming from added sugars (about 4 to 9 teaspoons a day for most adults). It seems like we're getting the message — according to a recent poll, 58 percent of Americans are trying to cut back.

How can you tell if something has added sugar?

Sometimes sugary foods are obvious, but often it’s hiding out in unlikely places like frozen pizza, Chinese food, peanut butter, ketchup, and pasta sauce. Check the nutrition label for “sugars” and look for these words in the ingredient list:

  • sugar, brown sugar
  • sucrose (cane or table sugar)
  • invert syrup, invert sugar
  • fructose (fruit sugar)
  • corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup
  • glucose, dextrose
  • maltose, malt syrup, malted barley
  • lactose (milk sugar)
  • honey
  • molasses, cane syrup
  • agave syrup
  • maple syrup
  • coconut sugar, palm sugar
  • date sugar
  • jaggery, muscovado (less refined types of sugar)

Which drinks are sugary?

We get nearly half of our added sugars from sweet drinks like regular (non-diet) sodas, fruity drinks with sugars added, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened coffee and tea drinks. A 12-ounce can of regular soda has about 150 calories, give or take a few (that’s about 9 teaspoons). Over time, that can really add up. To pick lower-sugar options, check for sugars in the ingredients and also check the nutrition label for “sugars” (it’s under “total carbohydrates”).

Juices are a little different. Though sweet, 100-percent fruit juices don’t have sugars added to them and they’re not as “empty” nutrition-wise. It’s still good to go easy on them and eat whole fruit instead, as the fiber helps slow sugar spikes in the blood.

What can you drink instead?

Water is a safe bet. Many of us don’t get enough, and studies show that swapping sugary drinks for water can cut about 200 calories a day and lead to weight loss.

Unsweetened tea or coffee can be a good swap. Drinking these instead of sugary drinks can cut about 140 calories a day (as long as you don’t load your cup with a lot of sugar and cream). Tea and coffee have healthy antioxidants as well, and coffee may even help prevent diabetes, heart disease, and many other health issues.

Diet drinks aren’t a clear win. These are drinks with artificial sweeteners such as saccharin (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda). Because our bodies don’t process these molecules the same way as sugar, they don’t provide any calories. Studies show they're generally safe, but it’s not clear whether they’re a healthy long-term substitute for sugary drinks. While some studies show they can help cut calories, others have found a link between fake sugars and weight gain, diabetes, and possible kidney damage.

How else can you cut back?

Premade snacks, sweets, meals, and condiments can be major sources of sugar. When shopping for anything, from breakfast cereal and energy bars to baked beans and barbecue sauce, read the nutrition labels and pick brands with less sugar.

Cutting down on sugar can be hard, especially if you’re not used to doing most of your own cooking or have a sweet tooth, but it’s so worth it! If you eat more protein and whole grains instead, you might even avoid those afternoon sugar crashes and have more energy to do all the things you love to do.


Selected references

  • United States Department of Agriculture. What are Added Sugars? ChooseMyPlate.gov
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
  • World Health Organization. Guideline: Sugar Intake for Adults and Children. 2015. [Link]
  • Zheng M, Allman-Farinelli M, Heitman B, and Rangan A. Substitution of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages with Other Beverage Alternatives: A Review of Long-Term Health Outcomes. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2015. Available online 4 March 2015. [Link]
Deepi Brar
Rally Health

Articles on Rally Health’s website are provided for informational purposes only, as a free resource for the public. They are not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Rally Health does not accept solicitations or compensation from any parties mentioned in the articles, and the articles are not an endorsement of any providers, experts, websites, tools, or financial consultants, services, and organizations.