In a recent post I recommend limiting sugar, even from natural sources, because Americans are taking in far too much. But scientists from the University of California, San Francisco believe that sugar limits shouldn’t be self-imposed. They want to see the sweet stuff regulated, much like alcohol and tobacco. According to their just-released report published in the journal Nature, excess sugar consumption is contributing to 35 million deaths worldwide each year, from diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, an even greater burden on public health than infectious diseases.
The researchers say sugar isn’t as innocent as ‘empty calories’ (calories without any nutritional value) because in the amounts we currently eat, triple the average consumption 50 years ago, it’s toxic, in that it ups blood pressure, damages the liver, and impacts hormones. The scientists believe the same regulations, including taxes and limited access, that helped reduce cigarette smoking, from about 43 percent of adults in 1965 to now less than 20 percent, could work for sugar.
I think most health experts, myself included, would like to see consumers slash their sugar intakes willingly, but this would mean drastic changes. When it comes to added sugar—not the kind put in foods by Mother Nature, like the sugar in fruit, but the sweetener added to foods and recipes, the top sources are soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks (36 percent of added sugar intake), desserts (19 percent), sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, e.g. those made with some juice as well as added sugar (10 percent), and candy (6 percent). Altogether the average American takes in about 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day, the equivalent of 35 two-pound boxes a year. According to the American Heart Association the target should be no more than 6 level teaspoons a day for women, or 9 teaspoons for men.
In addition to soaring sugar consumption, most Americans are also seriously short on healthy items. Only about 25 percent meet the recommended daily produce recommendations of two fruit and three veggie servings. Also, the average intake of whole grains is less than one serving per day, and fewer than 10 percent of Americans eat the minimum recommended three daily servings. When you think about all the sugar we’re eating that we shouldn’t be, and all the fruit, veggie, and whole grain servings we should be getting that we’re not, it’s obvious that some shuffling is in order.
If you think your diet is a bit out of balance commit to these three trade outs – each will reduce your sugar intake and help fill the fruit, veggie, and whole grain gap:
Kick the soda habit
If you crave bubbles switch to sparkling water or all natural seltzer with a splash of 100 percent fruit juice or fresh fruit for flavor. One of my favorite combos is a whole key lime, quartered and slightly squeezed and a few sprigs of fresh mint. It’s like sipping a refreshing virgin mojito.
Make fruit the base of your dessert
Bake or grill sliced apples, pears, pineapple, or mango. Instead of adding sugar just grill in foil or bake on a cookie sheet at 375 degrees Fahrenheit then dust with cinnamon, cloves, or fresh grated ginger. For a crunchy topping sprinkle with toasted rolled oats or unsweetened shredded coconut. If you’re craving something creamy layer with organic 0% (nonfat) yogurt or a nondairy yogurt made from coconut or almond milk. Or melt a few squares of dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa or greater) as a dip for fresh berries.
Get your sweet fix with whole grains (or even veggies!)
When you absolutely must have something like a cookie or brownie, choose options made with whole grains. One of my favorites is Uncle Eddie’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (just remember even though they’re made with oats they’re still an in-moderation splurge at 140 calories per cookie). Or whip up your own whole grain sweet treat with veggies to boot! Check out this video featuring my very own secret spinach brownie recipe.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.