Sugar is hard to escape in the American diet. It’s in everything from condiments to juices to bread. And yes, even in those McDonald’s fries. And Americans are eating a lot of it.
“Today, the average American consumes almost 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day, according to researchers at the University of California San Francisco,” says Sue Heikkinen, MS, RD, registered dietitian for MyNetDiary. One in four Americans far exceeds the USDA’s recommended daily added sugar cap of 50 grams, instead consuming a staggering 105 grams of added sugar per day. (The American Heart Association guidelines suggest no more than 24 grams of added sugar for women and no more than 35 grams for men.)
Most of that sugar comes from drinks. “Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, energy drinks, and sweetened tea are the leading source of added sugar—providing 47% of added sugar in the U.S. diet,” says Heikkinen. “There is some encouraging news—this added sugar intake represents a decrease from earlier reports.”
Eat a diet high in sugar, and the impact may not be seen until later.
“Many of the side effects of excess sugar consumption aren’t immediate, but instead build up over years,” says Elizabeth Spencer, MS, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “These include risk of Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease, and inflammation of the joints.”
Excessive intake of added sugar can lead to various health issues such as weight gain, inflammation, and diabetes, so you’ll want to look out for the signs you’re overdoing it before it gets any worse.
One of the biggest danger signs that you’re eating too much sugar is that you’re constantly feeling both anxious and tired.
Sugar is our body’s main source of energy, so it’s somewhat ironic that eating too much of the stuff can cause us to feel tired. “Eating sugary foods can indeed give an energy boost, but it can result in a crash later,” says Heikkinen. “This can set up a vicious cycle of turning to sugar again for a quick energy, then feeling fatigued again later. Fatigue can also be a symptom of high blood sugar (caused by eating too much sugar).”
Spencer explains that eating too much sugar at one time can cause jiteriness, but the fatigue will come quickly afterwards. “Eating a high sugar food can raise the amount of sugar in our bloodstream very quickly and provide a quick burst of energy, as well as feelings of anxiety and jitteriness,” says Spencer. “When we have an excess amount of sugar in our bloodstream, our body rapidly produces the hormone insulin to usher the sugar into our cells. This can then cause a sugar crash from decreased sugar in our bloodstream, resulting in that midafternoon slump and low energy.”
This crashing sensation won’t just drain your energy at certain times of the day, it may even go so far as to disrupt a good night’s sleep.
“Consuming large amounts of sugar is linked to lower quality sleep,” says Spencer. “In a clinical trial evaluating sugar’s impact on sleep, those who consumed significant amounts of sugar had less time in deep, restorative slow-wave sleep. Those who ate more sugar also took longer to fall asleep.”
How can you fit sugar into a healthy diet?
You don’t need to totally forbid yourself from sugar.
“Although there are health risks of excess sugar, it is by no means a poison,” says Heikkinen.
In fact, totally cutting out sugar or forbidding yourself from having your favorite sweet treat may make you crave it even more, making it harder to control the portion when you do eat it.
“If you can limit sneaky sources of added sugar such as cereals, salad dressings, and granola bars, you can leave room in your budget for foods you really enjoy, such as a piece of chocolate,” says Heikkinen.
Aim for added sugar in moderation combined with mindful eating habits.
“Having sugary food every once in a while is okay! Moderation is key here. Zoom out to the big picture of your dietary habits, and look at ‘how much and how often’ are you having a sugar-sweetened food,” says Spencer.
She recommends a few easy ways to moderate your sugar intake.
Read nutrition labels and keep sugar at less than 6 grams of added sugar per one serving of a packaged food item (this excludes fruit and plain dairy products).
Pair foods with added sugar with protein, fat, and fiber to slow down digestion and enhance satiety. An example would be pairing a serving of sweetened granola with plain Greek yogurt and fiber-packed berries.
And if you are struggling to manage sugar intake or feel out of control with sugar, another recommendation is to connect with a registered dietitian who can help you incorporate sugar in a healthful way. For help, check out these 20 Ways to End Sugar Cravings For Good, According to Nutritionists.
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