Most people realize that the uber-processed, artificially preserved, high sugar, low fiber products that populate grocery stores aisles, schools and vending machines barely count as food. Well-intentioned consumer demand for healthier products has led to a collection of cleverly marketed, self-touted health foods that are far from healthful and often mask significant amounts of hidden sugars (as well as other nasty ingredients). Sugar is so pervasive, even many savory foods are secretly sugar-laden. Most people would be shocked to see the volume of pure sugar they consume daily—sugar they wouldn’t plop by the spoonful into their coffee or morning cereal.
Limiting added sugars can drastically improve your physical health and mood, stabilize hunger and fullness signals and make you more body-attuned. Once you know what to look for, reading labels (and of course, filling your body with a bulk of nutritious, whole foods) will help you choose foods that are best for your body, mind and lifestyle.
Regularly consuming significant amounts of sugar increases susceptibility to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia/Alzheimer’s, and cancer. Eating refined sugar causes inflammation throughout the body, which allows disease to flourish and kindles low-grade pain and discomfort that many people don’t even recognize. Consuming refined sugar also causes blood sugar spikes and crashes, and has been linked with headaches, mood swings, and even anxiety and depression. (1, 2)
If that isn’t enough, sugar also makes it harder to maintain a healthy weight because it interferes with appetite regulation in multiple ways. Processed sugar, especially when combined with fat, induces a dopamine response (i.e. pleasure feelings) far beyond that which is triggered by foods available in nature. That dopamine response is not only habit forming, it entices you to eat when you don’t have a true energy need. Another reason sugar perpetuates overconsumption is because it lacks the fiber, water, and micronutrients that would bind the sugars in whole fruit, therefore it fails to trigger volume satiety mechanisms found in the lining of the stomach.
Sugar critically affects ghrelin and leptin (your hunger and fullness hormones, respectively). High refined sugar foods fail to incite the leptin response that normally occurs after meals, which encourages you to stop eating; instead ghrelin concentration in the bloodstream actually increases after consuming refined sugar. Altering the function of these hormones makes it much more difficult for your body to regulate energy balance and could lead to overweight and obesity. (3, 4)
You may be starting to get the idea that sugar is lurking around every dark corner, cloaked in an endless array of elaborate disguises, waiting to pounce on every well-meaning and conscientious victim. While sugar isn’t out there trying to hunt you down, its nomenclature is ridiculously plentiful and duplicitous.
Here are just some of the names sugar is listed by on nutritional packaging—brown rice syrup, cane sugar, corn syrup solids, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, molasses, fructose, lactose, maltose, carbitol, maltodextrin, sucanat, coconut sugar, rice syrup solids...
Don’t fall for marketing scams that paint sugar healthier than it is. While less processed sugars may contain trivially higher amounts of antioxidants, all of these sweeteners are processed, isolated sugars that cause the same negative health effects discussed above. Ignore words plastered on packaging like “natural” and “organic,” which don’t tell you what’s really in a product; turn it over and read the ingredients.
Look for any of the various types of added sugar in the ingredients section and also check the grams of sugar per serving (or per however much you would actually consume). By 2020 the FDA will require all packaging to list which sugars are “added sugars,” as opposed to those naturally occurring in things like fruit, which will make it much easier to discern whether a product is truly healthy or not. Until the new labels fully roll out, check the order in which ingredients are listed—those listed first will be most prevalent in the food.
You might not think to check the following foods for sugar content, but go ahead and read the label next time you’re perusing grocery store aisles to make sure you know what you’re getting. Here are some examples of foods that are often filled with sugar and might not be as healthful as you think: dried fruit, granola, nutritional/protein bars, breakfast cereal (even seemingly healthier kinds), packaged oatmeal, sauces, condiments, salad dressing, juices and non-dairy milks.
While marketed as healthy, “organic,” “all-natural,” etc., these foods are processed with added sugar and sweeteners, as the average consumer palate is trained to choose sweetness (and a lot of it!). If you’re used to consuming foods with added sugar, you won‘t even notice how sweet that salad dressing or granola is. The sugar content of these foods really adds up, often to the equivalent of a sugary dessert.
Next time you’re selecting any type of packaged food, read the label and check for added sugar and sweeteners. Consider not only the grams per serving, but how many servings you might realistically consume to get a better picture of that food’s sugar content (some foods list ridiculously small serving sizes that lead you to believe they contain less sugar than they do). Look for foods with little to no added sugar, no matter the type and no matter how healthy the product otherwise sounds.
Hopefully this article provided you with tools to make healthy, informed choices when it comes to avoiding added sugars and advertently nourishing yourself. By getting rid of excess sugar in your diet, eventually your taste buds will reset and the foods you once reached for will seem overwhelming and unpalatably sweet. Choosing whole, low-sugar foods will help you get in touch with your body’s hunger and fullness signals, maintain steady energy and mood, and greatly benefit overall health and disease prevention.