Sugar is notoriously sneaky—without even realizing it, you might be eating more than you think. Consider this: A bowl of cereal for breakfast, a deli sandwich for lunch, and a salad with store-bought dressing for dinner are all surprisingly high sources of sugar. Even though all three meals seem like healthy choices, you could be racking up a whopping 42 grams of sugar. (That’s over one and a half times the recommended daily amount.)
For the most part, sugar in your diet isn’t great—it’s been linked to heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and weight gain (not to mention tooth decay).
But not all sugar is created equal.
“You don’t want to overload your body with sugar,” says Lisa Moskovitz, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in New York. “But you still need sugar to survive.”
When you think of sugar, your mind probably goes straight to artificial sugars—the snow-white stuff added to baked goods and dumped by the tablespoon into soda. This is called added sugars. “Added sugars should be limited because they are often found in foods that have little to no nutritive value,” Moskovitz says. “This can contribute to weight gain, obesity, health issues, and inflammation.”
But that doesn’t mean your sweet tooth is doomed. Natural sugars—those found in nutritious foods like fruits and veggies—can actually provide nutritional value, says Moskovitz. They help power your day, giving your brain and body the energy they need to get from early a.m. classes to sports practice.
The one thing that is clear about sugar is that too much of it is bad for your health. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends reducing your daily intake of added sugars to less than 5 percent of your total energy intake (calories consumed). For example, if you consume 2,000 calories a day, aim not to exceed 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugars. “Always check labels and look at grams of sugar, which is found under carbohydrates,” Moskovitz says.
Natural sugars are less concerning. “Natural sugars are superior because they’re typically found in foods that also contain a variety of extremely beneficial nutrients,” Moskovitz explains. Take apples, for example. A medium-sized apple contains 19 grams of sugar, but it’s also rich in good-for-you flavonoids and antioxidants. The fiber in the apple also helps slow down the body’s absorption of the sugar.
It’s the added sugars you should worry about. Of the 27 grams of sugar in a single bowl of Smart Start® cereal, for example, 18 grams are added sugars. (American food labels are now required to list added sugars—you’ll see them on a separate line beneath the total sugar count on a nutrition label—so pay attention to that number.)
Limiting your sugar intake isn’t always as simple as cutting back on desert and switching to diet soda. Sugar is hiding everywhere—even in foods that probably don’t taste sweet, including bread, tomato sauce, and almond butter (yes, really). Told you it was sneaky.
On top of that, sugar has dozens of different names. There are more than 60 different names for sugar listed on food labels, according to Sugarscience.org. Cane juice crystals, sorghum syrup, barley malt, corn syrup, dextran, dextrose, and fructose are just a few of sugar’s aliases that might show up on an ingredient label.
“If it’s not a fruit, vegetable, or dairy food and it has sugar, then it is most likely added sugar, not natural,” Moskovitz says.
Think you can outsmart sugar? Test your knowledge with this quiz to find out some of the most surprising places sugar is hiding.
How students are reducing their sugar intake
“Keep track of what you’re eating, and don’t eat a lot of processed foods.”
—Katie, senior, La Mesa, California
“I limit fruit intake to whole fruits instead of juices and conventional smoothies.”
—Natania, senior, Texas
“Be sure to read labels thoroughly and try to avoid sugary drinks such as soda and juice—drink water instead.”
—Arabella, sophomore, Canandaigua, New York
“I look at the food labels before I buy and always choose what has less sugar.”
—Roxy, senior, San Bernardino, California
Photography credit: Erica Hudson
Lisa Moskovitz, RD, nutritionist, New York, New York.
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