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You know what sugar is—that white, grainy, sweet stuff that makes your morning coffee or after-dinner ice cream taste oh so good—and you also probably know that it’s a good idea to limit your consumption for optimal health. But there’s plenty more to know about this carbohydrate, from what it actually does to your body to why knowing the difference between “natural” and “added” sugars is so important. Here’s everything you need to know about sugar nutrition.
Sugar Nutrition Facts
Here’s the nutritional breakdown per 1 teaspoon of sugar, per the USDA’s most up-to-date guidelines:
- Calories: 16
- Fat: 0g
- Carbs: 4g
- Sugar: 4g
- Protein: 0g
Daily value: Added sugars (not naturally occurring in food) should make up no more than 10% of your daily calories, according to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. For someone following a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s about 12.5 teaspoons a day, max, though the less consumed the better.
Types of Sugar
There are two types of sugar you hear about most often: natural and added. The natural kind is just what it sounds like—“sugar that’s found inherently in the food, such as fresh produce,” says Elizabeth Shaw, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Shaw Simple Swaps. Added sugars, on the other hand, are, well, added to products to enhance sweetness; high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, rice syrup, and corn syrup are common types you’ll see on nutrition labels.
And here’s where things get a little tricky—sugar sources like honey or maple syrup are technically found in nature and considered a better choice than granulated white cane sugar because their molecular makeup makes them less glycemic (meaning they don’t raise your blood sugar levels as quickly), but if they’re the source of sweetener in a packaged product or you add some to your morning oatmeal, that’s technically considered “added” and counts toward your daily limit for the day.
Health Benefits of Sugar
Not all sugar is bad. The kind that’s naturally found in fresh fruits and vegetables is a source of glucose, which provides the energy our body needs to go, go, go! In fact, too little sugar in the blood can actually have a negative impact on your attention and thinking. And, when consumed via good-for-you vehicles like produce, “it can be a wonderful way to obtain many nutrients the body needs, like antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber,” says Shaw. But that’s about where the benefits stop—consuming too much, especially added sugars, which aren’t naturally occurring, can wreak serious havoc on the body over time.
Sugar Health Risks
Too much sugar can lead to weight gain. How? When your blood sugar is constantly elevated due to overconsumption of sugar, your body’s insulin response gets messed up, which can cause you to pack on the pounds over time. In fact, studies show that high consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked to increased risk of obesity.
Overdoing the sweet stuff can also harm your heart. For one, obesity is a risk factor for heart disease. But excessive sugar intake can also lead to type 2 diabetes, another heart disease risk factor, as well as trigger inflammation in the body that can negatively affect other heart-related pieces like arteries and blood pressure. “When there’s extra insulin in your body for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to heart disease, heart failure, heart attack, and stroke,” says Vanessa Rissetto, M.S., R.D., registered dietitian at Culina Health.
And then there’s sugar’s impact on your brain. When you frequently consume a lot of sugar, you may notice mood changes like feeling more anxious, irritable, or depressed; this is due to a constant cycle blood sugar spikes and drops. What’s more: studies suggest that high glucose levels may increase your risk for dementia down the line.
How to Cut Back on Sugar
Ready to eat less sugar? Start small! “My motto with all my clients is, ‘small changes lead to big differences!’,” says Shaw. Try to tackle one area that is a significant contributor to your daily intake of added sugar, first. “If this is soda or juice, decrease your portions instead of cutting it out cold turkey,” she adds. So if you’re guzzling 20oz of orange juice every morning, try cutting back to 10oz, then lower and lower.
Finding alternative ways to satisfy your taste for sweets is also key. Try these sugar swaps for the five places responsible for 70% of added sugar intake, from DJ Blatner, R.D.N., spokesperson for Now products and author of The Flexitarian Diet:
- Sugar sweetened beverages: Instead of soda or sports drinks, make unsweetened fruit teas (hot or iced), sip sparkling water, or add fresh fruit or herbs to still or bubbly H20 for flavor.
- Desserts and sweet snacks: Make fruit dessert, whether that’s combining dates with cocoa powder to make a truffle; dipping fresh berries in dark chocolate; making DIY ice cream with frozen bananas; grilling up fresh peaches or plums in summer; or enjoying cooked apples with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
- Sweetened coffee and tea: Add flavor by stirring in vanilla, cinnamon, coconut collagen, or cocoa powder.
- Candy and sugary toppings (like syrup or jam): Use mashed fruit for syrup, DIY your own chia jam, or rely on unsweetened dried fruit like mango to satisfy your need for sweet.
- Cereals and breakfast bars: Whip up a batch of overnight oats, make your own no-sugar granola, or prep grab-and-go options like protein pancakes so you always have something on hand.
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