The new Dietary Guidelines were published on January 7 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines are published every five years and each edition is meant to reflect the latest understanding of nutrition research.
The New York Times, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal and CNN are just a few of the many media outlets that wrote well-informed summaries of key changes to the Dietary Guidelines, as well as some criticisms about them. I may get into some of those in later posts, but today I want to focus on added sugar.
The Dietary Guidelines Urge Americans to Eat Less Added Sugar
Perhaps the biggest change that nearly everyone agrees on is a clear recommendation to limit the added sugar we eat. Specifically, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend that less than 10% of Americans’ daily calories should come from added sugar.
It might seem obvious that eating less added sugar is a good thing. But let’s take a look at a few reasons it matters:
- Added sugars are empty calories. In other words, they provide calories, but no other nutritional benefit. If the purpose of eating is to get the nutrients our bodies need, then added sugars serve no purpose.
- Added sugars are associated with excess body weight. Many studies have shown that the amount of added sugars that people eat is correlated to their body mass indexes (BMI). If one of the health goals for your family is to help everyone maintain a healthy body weight, then added sugars are not a good choice.
- Added sugars are associated with disease. For adults, there is strong evidence that higher intake of added sugars increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. There is also some evidence that a higher intake of added sugars is associated with high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
- Added sugars may lead to cavities. Based on a World Health Organization review, there is moderate evidence that added sugars contribute to the development of cavities in kids and adults. If you are like me, taking your kid to the dentist to fill a cavity is NOT something high on your wish list.
What Are Added Sugars?
Now that we’ve covered why eating less added sugar is a worthy goal, let’s be clear about what added sugars are – and what they aren’t.
- What they are: Added sugars are sugars that are added during the processing of foods (think: sugar as an ingredient in a boxed cereal or sugar as an ingredient in ketchup). Even if a sugar is thought of as “clean” or “natural” (like honey), it’s still considered an added sugar when it’s added to another food.
- What they’re not: Added sugars are NOT the sugars that naturally occurs in foods. Do strawberries contain sugar? Yes, fructose and glucose. Does milk contain sugar? Yes, lactose. These are naturally-occurring sugars, put there by Mother Nature herself, not by a food processing factory. These naturally-occurring sugars generally aren’t a concern because they come along with a number of beneficial nutrients and they typically make up a much lesser amount of the food (as compared to the sugar in, say, a piece of cake).
How Much Added Sugar Is OK?
The Dietary Guidelines recommend that less than 10% of calories come from added sugar. But in a footnote, it goes on to explain that in most cases, there isn’t even room for 10% of calories to be from added sugars. In other words, by the time we meet all our recommended nutritional goals, chances are, we’re already at (or close to) our daily calorie limit. Similarly, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 9 grams of added sugar for men and 6 grams for women, which would be less than 10% of calories for most adults.
So what exactly does this mean for you and your family? Calorie intake obviously varies based on gender, age and activity level. But based on the recommended calorie intake ranges for age/gender groups, here is the MAXIMUM added sugar sugar you could eat listed in grams and teaspoons. The range in added sugars should correspond with where you or your child’s ideal calorie intake (e.g. a sedentary 9 year old could have up to 30 grams while a very active 13 year old could have up to 60 grams).
- Kids ages 2-8 (1200 calorie diet) = 30 grams of added sugar per day (7.5 teaspoons)
- Kids ages 9-13 (1200 – 2400 calorie diet) = 30-60 grams of added sugar per day (7.5 – 15 teaspoons)
- Girls ages 14-18 (1200 – 2500 calorie diet) = 30-62 grams of added sugar per day (7.5 – 15.5 teaspoons)
- Boys ages 14-18 (1600 – 3300 calorie diet) = 40-82 grams of added sugar per day (10 – 20.5 teaspoons)
- Adult women (1200 – 2500 calorie diet) = 30-62 grams of added sugar per day (7.5 – 15.5 teaspoons)
- Adults men (1600 – 3300 calorie diet) = 40-82 grams of added sugar per day (10 – 20.5 teaspoons)
Again, most of us don’t have enough room in our diets to eat the maximum, so ideally, you should aim for less than these numbers listed above.
How to Reduce Added Sugars in Your Family’s Diet
Most Americans eat double to triple the amounts outlined in the chart above, so we have work to do. The easiest way to reduce added sugars in your family’s diet is to eat mostly whole foods, instead of packaged foods. However, this isn’t always realistic for many families.
So the next best thing is to prioritize where and how you can make improvements.
Drink Water or Milk: Nearly half (47%) of the added sugars we consume in American are from beverages like soda, sports drinks and fruit drinks (the fake kind….not 100% juice, which contains no added sugar). If these drinks are routinely in your fridge, the single best thing you can do is to begin swapping them out for water. If you crave the bubbles or flavor, try sparkling water with a splash of lemon or lime juice, instead.
Eat Better Snacks: Snacks and sweets, together, make up 31 percent of the added sugars that we consumer in America. So improving these areas can have a big impact. Rather than snacking on cookies, crackers, bars or other snack foods, opt for a fruit or vegetable and a healthy fat or protein. Think: veggies and hummus, apples and peanut butter, or berries and Greek yogurt. I’ll do another post soon sharing more ideas.
Manage Sweets: Sweets are tough to manage. I get it. It’s hard to always say no. Two quick tips are to keep sweets out of sight and to gradually decrease the portion size that you offer your family. I’ll do another post with more tips on managing sweets soon.
Read Labels: Most Nutrition Facts Labels don’t separate “added sugars” from the sugars that naturally-occur in food, so it makes it a bit tricky to always know exactly how much added sugars are in foods. Luckily, the ingredient list provides some clues. If there are multiple sugars listed and/or they are listed higher up on the list, the food likely has a lot of added sugar. Here are just a few of the types of added sugars to be on the lookout for on an ingredient list:
- anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sugar, syrup and white sugar.
What tips do you have for managing added sugars in your household? Please share in the comments, below.