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You’ve heard that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But do you know what kinds of foods may actually send you to the doctor? Fats? Carbs?

Recent data shows that sugar is actually the real troublemaker for your health.

Turns out, most Americans are consuming far more sugar in a day than they should – and much of that comes from the very first meal of the day.

In fact, sugar intake is one of the largest public health concerns today.

But how do you know how much is too much? According to the American Heart Association, the amount of added sugar we eat daily shouldn’t add up to more than 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men. This “added sugar” comes from the sugar you mix into your coffee or that you find in soda – not the sugar naturally found in fruit and unprocessed food. On top of a host of health issues caused by too many sweets, 2015 guidelines warn that eating more than 10 percent of your total daily calories in the form of added sugar (approximately 12 teaspoons) prevents your body from getting the other nutrients it needs to be its healthiest.

But the average American is eating anywhere from 13 to more than 20 teaspoons of added sugar every day. To put that into perspective – and understand how quickly those teaspoons add up – think about this scenario from Gabe Staub, Health Promotion Specialist at BCBSNC:  “Consider that one 12-ounce soda can has more than 9 teaspoons of sugar. Those who drink 3 or 5 (or more!) sodas daily can end up consuming a whopping 44 teaspoons – that’s a cup of sugar every day!” And children are particularly susceptible. Kids consume half of the maximum amount of sugar recommended for them at breakfast. By the end of the day, many have had triple the recommended amount.

So we know sugar can harm your teeth or increase your belt size. But when kids and adults eat more sugar than they should, the full array of health consequences can be tough to manage. Any sugar we eat causes a spike in insulin. But if this happens often, and for long periods of time, those spikes can lead to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, neuropathy and even cancer. And if 10 percent to 25 percent of your daily calories come from added sugar, you’re three times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than someone with a diet in which sugar accounts for less than 10 percent of their calories. It’s important to remember that sugar isn’t just in the foods you eat. Beverages are a big culprit, too.

And it’s not just your physical health that’s adversely affected by too much sugar. If you’re drinking more than four servings of soda each day, you’re 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who drink just unsweetened water. Research shows that eating sugar can often trigger responses in the brain that are similar to those seen in people with addictions. “For people who drink soda, it’s not the caffeine they are craving. It’s the sugar and the quick response it has in their brains,” Staub said. “Food scientists and companies have become experts at adding just the right amount of sugar to keep consumers stuck on their products.”

Candy, soda and other sweet treats are obvious sources, but from where else does all of this sugar come into our diet? More often than not, it can arrive as soon as we begin our day, or when we don’t even realize we’re munching. Some common breakfast foods and snacks have high levels of added sugar. Here is just a sample:

  • Sweet breakfast cereals, muffins and even “healthy” oatmeal
  • Protein bars
  • Smoothies
  • Yogurts – particularly those with fruit
  • Fruit cups in syrup
  • Sports and energy drinks
  • Specialty coffee beverages
  • Condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce

 

Giving up added sugar could mean a world of good for your health, since the benefits can be pretty dramatic.

  • Cutting back can lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol and the risk of heart attack, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
  • You also can start thinking more clearly, since lower sugar intake can result in better cognitive function.
  • Improved focus, memory and responsiveness mean no more midday slumps or brain fog.
  • And if you’ve been searching for the fountain of youth, saying sayonara to sugar may be the key.
  • If you’ve been bothered by dull or sagging skin lately, prolonged excess sugar intake may be to blame because sugar damages the collagen and elastin that keep your skin firm and bright. Cutting back on sugar will keep your skin looking young and will also reduce skin inflammation.

 

Removing sugar from your diet may seem like a daunting task, but there are easy ways to get started.

Know where to look. Sugar hides in surprising places, from cereal to salad dressing. Reading labels can help avoid added doses of the sweet stuff, and making your own homemade versions of your favorite foods is even better. Check out this list of other names for sugar to keep an eye out for. Changes to food labels will soon make identifying sugars easier. By July 2018, the majority of food labels will be required to show the amount of added sugars the product contains. “People who aren’t as familiar with nutrition labels will be able to tell the difference between the amount of added sugar and natural sugar in a product,” says Staub.

Start plain. Adding fresh or frozen fruit, honey and other natural ingredients to plain yogurt lets you control how much sugar you eat.

Make it a family affair. Find fun and easy breakfasts the whole family can prepare and enjoy ahead of time, like egg muffins, overnight oats and homemade energy bars. Not sure what to make? The American Heart Association has a large library of healthy recipes, like this no-sugar added peach melba parfait.

Get some guidance. Registered dietitians can also help you learn how to navigate food labels and develop healthy meals with less added sugar.

Switch what you sip. If you typically prefer to drink soda, try flavored seltzers or soda water instead. The variety of flavors available gives you options to sample and find what you like.

With added sugar lurking in so many places, the idea of cutting back can feel overwhelming. Although it won’t be a quick process, over time it will improve your health, lower your risk of chronic disease and help you feel your best. You don’t have to overhaul your diet all at once. Start with small changes that are manageable, like picking one product in your kitchen to swap out for a healthier alternative. Switch your current bottle of ketchup – which likely is filled with high fructose corn syrup – for a version that uses a natural form of sugar. You can pick a new sugar-filled product to swap once you’ve gotten used to the change. Soon enough, too much sugar will be a distant memory.

 

Charlene Macielag

About Charlene Macielag

Charlene Macielag is a Communications Specialist on the New Media team at BCBSNC.

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