If you’re participating in the online MUS Wellness Incentive Program, you may have seen a new challenge for March: Kick a Bad Habit. Usually, the incentive challenges focus on what healthy behaviors we can add to our lives, i.e. intense exercise, quality sleep-promoting habits, more water; but this month we’re encouraging you to give up an unhealthy habit, at least for 4 days per week anyway! Many of you are participating in the challenge, and it’s been fascinating to read the comments about which bad habits you’re kicking. There are some unique bad habits listed, like complaining, or getting angry at other drivers, or hitting the snooze button in the morning, but by far the most popular bad habit that you all are working to kick: Eating too much sugar. Some of you are trying to cut sugar out of your diet completely; others are focusing on specific sugar sources such as soda, candy, or sweet breakfast pastries.
Sugar is an easy fuel source for the human body. Sugar, in all its various forms, takes minimal effort for our bodies to break down and for the glucose in our blood to rise as a result. Eating sugar also triggers the release of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine, which is associated with feelings of pleasure, reward, and motivation.
So why have so many of you resolved to cut back?
One reason may be that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines included specific limits on sugar: no more than 10% of daily calories. For someone eating a 2,000 calorie diet, that means limiting sugar to 50 grams per day or less. In teaspoons, that’s about 12.5. It’s estimated that the average American consumes about twice that amount, or 22 teaspoons per day. As a point of reference, a 12 oz. can of Coca-cola contains approximately 9 teaspoons (39 grams) of sugar. If your body requires more calories, you can eat a little more sugar than 50 grams and stay within the guidelines; if you require fewer calories, than you should limit your intake even more. Even if you don’t drink soda or eat candy, it’s easy for sugar from less obvious sources to add up throughout the day. Foods like dressings, sauces, beverages, snack foods, and even breads can contain added sugar.
The 2015 guidelines were based on the growing body of research showing that added sugar isn’t just bad for our dental health; it is detrimental to our overall health as well. A few highlights of what excessive sugar consumption does to the human body:
- Increases risk of heart disease. Recent research has shown that a diet high in sugar increases risk of heart disease, independent of weight. This suggests that sugar is harmful beyond just its ability to promote weight gain. High sugar intake has been shown to increase inflammation in the body and have a negative effect on cholesterol profile, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
- Lowers immune function.
- Provides calories without nutrition. Sugar only supplies energy without any accompanying vitamins, minerals, protein, or fiber.
- Causes tooth decay & gum disease.
- Increases risk of type 2 diabetes & obesity.
- Can drastically affect mood & energy levels. For a great story about one teenager’s sugar intake and the resulting sugar crash, watch this
Need I go on? These are some pretty compelling reasons to cut back on sugar. It should be noted that this discussion does not include the natural sugars found in dairy and fruit. But it does include other forms of sugar including agave, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, honey, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, cane crystals, and words ending in -ose like fructose and dextrose. Some sweeteners, such as honey, contain antioxidants; others, such as molasses, contain small amounts of nutrients, so they are slightly better choices, but the bottom line is that they are still sugar.
All that being said, keep in mind that a sweet treat every now and then will not kill you. Remember the 80/20 rule of moderation. Sugary foods can make us happy (at least in the short term), and are intimately tied to many of our traditions such as birthdays and holidays. Plus, a piece of dark chocolate has an amazing ability to brighten a day, doesn’t it? But, if you are someone who starts your day with a frappucino and sweet muffin, followed by a candy bar and soda as an afternoon snack, and you wouldn’t dream of skipping dessert after dinner, it might be time to rethink your habits.
Your Wellness Team isn’t perfect. I’ll admit that I have a very strong sweet tooth myself, as does my esteemed co-worker the exercise guy. So here are a few tips for all of us to decrease our sugar intake:
- Read food labels and check out the ingredient list. If sugar (or another name for sugar) is at or near the top of the list, it’s probably wise to choose something else.
- Try fruit instead. Eat a piece of fruit or handful of berries, fresh or frozen, when experiencing a strong sugar craving.
- Eat balanced meals that contain protein, healthy fats, and fiber. This will keep your blood sugar more balanced and avoid the blood sugar highs & lows that lead to increased cravings.
- Skip artificial sweeteners. Research suggests that fake sweeteners can affect our taste for sweets and potentially increase sweet cravings. Plus, artificial sweeteners haven’t been shown to be very effective at weight control anyway.
- Don’t keep tempting sweets in house, or at least make them less visible or harder to get to.
- Drink water. Switching from soda, or other sweetened beverages like sweetened iced tea, sports drinks, or energy drinks, to water can make a drastic difference in your consumption of sugar.
Keep up the good work this month with decreasing your sugar intake and know that I am right there with you! I’m starting small — I’m focusing on my habit of eating a spoonful of chocolate ice cream while cleaning up from dinner, which often times turns into another spoonful, and then another… Some of you might be able to go cold turkey and cut out most added sugar in your diet, but it’s baby steps for me.
P.S. Did you know that March is National Nutrition Month?! Maybe only us dietitians get excited about this month-long celebration of healthy eating, but if you’re thinking about improving your diet, now is the perfect time! This year’s National Nutrition Month theme is “Savor the Flavor of Eating Right”. For some commentary related to the theme, check out my previous blog post here.