Sometimes, I do things dietarily just for fun. Josh has a gluten allergy, so I’m gluten free myself 95% of the time, but other than that, we don’t have many other dietary restrictions in our house. We generally eat pretty healthily, vegetables, whole grains, and all that good stuff. But sometimes I get curious about the nuts and bolts of what’s making up our meals.
While on my spin bike the other day, I started watching a documentary called That Sugar Film. The movie is along the lines of Super Size Me, with the documentarian deciding to go from a zero sugar diet, to one that include 160g of sugar per day, and tracking his results through the month.
To be clear, 160g of sugar is A LOT! Studying sugar in general in difficult because there are healthy, natural sugars and unhealthy sugars…and sometimes the two overlap! But even so, at the height of sugar consumption in modern American memory, it was estimated the American diet peaked in 1999 at 111g of sugar per day.
In 2016, it was estimated that Americans were eating 84g of sugar per day.
Some sugars comes from foods like fruit. An apple, for example, might include up to 20g of sugar, but much of it is fructose, and the body is designed to handle sugars coming in from fruits which also provide fiber, carbohydrates, and necessary vitamins. More importantly, after eating an apple, you will likely feel full and unlikely to eat another one for some time.
Other sugars are the added kinds, the sweeteners hidden in processed foods, breakfast cereals, granola bars, coffee creamer, many yogurts, etc. It’s recommended that no more than 50g of sugar a day is consumed as part of a general 2,000 calorie diet. But the American Heart Association cuts that even further, suggesting 37g for men and 25g for women.
And so with those guidelines in hand, I set off to figure out just what an average day on my normal diet looked like.
I first conferred with my friend, a clinical dietician, that I wouldn’t need to worry about the fruits I consumed in my day. For example, I start every morning with a fresh smoothie featuring frozen fruit, spinach, coconut water, protein powder, and antioxidant powder. Individually the items totalled zero added sugars, the fruit and coconut water both had naturally occuring sugars that totalled almost 17g. She said not to sweat it, and count just those labelled on the package as “added sugars,” unless it was obvious from the ingredients label that there wasn’t a naturally occuring sugar source and thus the sugar was added.
(This happens, for example, when the sweetner used is something like “juice concentrate” which might harness the sweetness of natural fruit, but is still being added as a sugar source.)
I’ve now been tracking my sugar intake for two weeks and have managed to go as low as 18g one day, and as high as 68 on another. Over two weeks I’ve averaged 31g of added sugars a day, squarely between the 25-50g range offered by the two sets of guidelines.
The thing that has, perhaps, been the most surprising, is how easy it is to hit that mark. Some highlights…
Take my morning coffee for example. One cup of coffee, 4g. If I have a second cup, that’s another 4g. That 8 grams puts me already a third of the way to the American Heart Association’s standard of 25.
At work, I have a morning cup of tea with a package of breakfast biscuits. Mind you, these biscuits are “healthy” with 14g of whole grains, healthy monounsaturated fat, fiber, and…11g of added sugar. Better skip that second cup of coffee after all.
My peanut butter sandwich at lunch was a one time shocker worth 20g of sugar all by itself between the bread, peanut butter, and jelly.
And on girl’s night, when we indulged in a Magnum ice cream bar while watching The Bachelor, that also clocked in at 26g all on it’s own.
So the American Heart Association doesn’t want you to eat ice cream bars!
The good news is that in doing this awareness exercise, it’s also really obvious where sugar can come out of my diet. Salad dressing, for example, is a really sneaky place to find a lot of sugar, and just being aware of labels…or swapping dressing for fruit, nuts, or cheese instead can cut as much as 6 or 7 grams of sugar out of a meal.
The coffee creamer is another one that can quickly decrease. 4g is a tablespoon of sugar. I would not generally put a full tablespoon of sugar in my coffee, so swapping out the flavored creamed for regular milk or half and half, and adding a sprinkle of sugar myself, can easily cut that 4g in half.
It’s hard for me not to look at the numbers and decide to just bail out on sugar all together, but, perhaps surprisingly, most dietitians don’t advocate from switching from your normal sugar intake to no sugar intake at all. That’s because the body will crave the sugar it’s missing making it difficult to maintain a meaningful dietary change if you slip up or sugar binge.
It’s also to remember that some sugar is healthy, and that few people are overweight and/or face health risks because they ate too many apples and bananas!
So make yourself aware of what’s going onto your plate and into your body. Look for small tweaks, maybe one small change a day that is a better choice than what you would have otherwise made. And don’t beat yourself up if not everyday is perfect. Striving to make even a small step in the right direction is progress towards the greater good of a happy, healthy life!