In a shocking surprise to most of us dietitians, the American Heart Association (AHA) stood up to the food industry earlier this month and essentially made eating and drinking a lot of items in the supermarket off-limits.
Why? Because sugar has just earned a spot on the AHA’s black list, joining saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium as negative nutrients that need to be limited for your heart’s sake.
The AHA’s new recommendations on added sugars in our diet are the strictest of any major health organizations’ guidelines. Added sugars, by the way, are sweeteners that are used primarily in processed packaged foods and beverages—think sodas, cereals, and desserts. Added sugars are not the same as natural sugars, which are naturally present in fruit, 100% fruit juices, dairy products, and vegetables.
The AHA recommends that added sugar intake be limited to 100 calories (25 grams, or 6 teaspoons) per day for women, and to 150 calories (about 37 grams, or 9 teaspoons) per day for men.
Why the change?
Most of us now eat about 355 calories (88 grams, or 22 teaspoons) of added sugars each day, which is almost a 20% increase over the past three decades. When you consider that a 12-ounce can of soda or one cup of frozen yogurt packs in 8 teaspoons of sugar, meeting the new restrictions will make many foods and beverages off-limits.
The sour truth to all this sweet stuff in our diet, according to the AHA report, published in the journal Circulation, is that several studies have linked high amounts of sugar intake to insulin resistance, hypertension, high triglycerides, and type 2 diabetes. While most food manufacturers would argue otherwise, the bottom line is that sweets may taste great, but they don’t add positive nutrients to our diet. In a nation of overfed and undernourished individuals, sugary foods need to be limited.
The AHA’s conclusion: There is sufficient evidence to link excessive sugar intake to the pandemic of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Tricks to limit added sugars
If you have a sweet tooth, you can probably make use of these tricks I use to limit added sugars and make sure I don't blow my overall daily calorie budget.
- Eat natural, whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, as added sugars are primarily in processed foods. This is especially true for snacks, as between-meal noshes are often sugar-laden.
- Since added and natural sugars aren't distinguished from one another on nutritional labeling, it's not possible to calculate exactly how much you're getting each day. But as a general rule of thumb, the more processed a food is, the higher percentage of its sugars are added—especially if it's not a fruit or dairy product, which may contain a mix of both.
- For a better idea of the added sugar content, look at the ingredient list on packaged foods. If any of these are among the first three ingredients, the food is sugar-rich: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, sugar (dextrose, fructose, glucose, sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, syrup.
- Choose foods labeled low-sugar, sugar-free, or sugar-reduced.
- Pay particular attention to the foods and beverages listed below, as they are the most common sources of added sugars in the diet.
Major sources of added sugar in Americans’ diets
- Regular soft drinks: 33% contribution to total added sugar intake
- Straight sugar and candy: 16%
- Cakes, cookies, pies: 13%
- Fruit drinks and “-ades” (not 100% fruit juice): 10%
- Dairy (watch out for sweetened yogurt and ice cream): 8.5%
- Grain-based foods (watch out for cinnamon toast and sweetened cereals): 6%