Spring Clean Your Plate

Decreasing your added sugar intake

When it comes to spring cleaning, our homes feel like the obvious starting point: organizing the garage, sorting through clothes we no longer wear, cleaning the windows, inside and out. But what about “spring cleaning” other areas of our lives, such as the kitchen pantry?

In many cultures, spring, the season of rebirth, is seen as an ideal time for turning inward and “detoxing” our diet. (After all, the winter is long and laden with plenty of holidays and excuses to indulge a little more than we probably should.) Thankfully, spring cleaning our plates doesn’t have to involve any fad diets or hours spent at the gym. If you read nutrition labels and count, you’re already well on your way toward a healthier you.

According to the National Institutes of Health, added sugars account for up to 17% of the total calorie intake of adults and up to 14% for children. But dietary guidelines suggest that number should be less than 10% per day.

Jean Krebs, a registered dietitian for 40 years, said the problem with added sugars is they offer no nutrients.

“Added sugars are empty calories, which means they offer nothing but calories,” she said. 

For example, “If you need 1,500 calories, you would be allowed up to 150 calories of added sugar,” Krebs said.
That’s the equivalent of a 12-ounce Cherry Coke. Given the fact that a recent national Gallup poll found that half of Americans drink one or more glasses of soda a day – and 7% report they drink four or more per day – that’s a lot of added sugar. 

One standard bottle of Coke contains as much as 16 and 1/2 sugar cubes worth of sugar, which greatly exceeds the daily added sugar recommendation for men and women. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

“It is hard to drink soda and not overload on sugar,” Krebs said.
Over time, consuming too many high-calorie, low-nutrient foods can increase the risk for other health issues, including heart disease, diabetes and stroke. 

“Added sugars increase your triglyceride levels, which can contribute to heart disease, and can be bad for diabetics and blood sugar control,” Krebs explained.

The challenge, however, isn’t isolated to foods that are obvious offenders, such as soda. Some of the biggest culprits are in plain sight whenever we open the refrigerator door. Ketchup, spaghetti sauce, barbecue sauce and even that innocent-looking yogurt can push your daily added sugar intake over the edge. 

“One way to limit added sugars is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store,” Krebs suggested. “That’s where you will find more of the fruits and vegetables, milks, meats and less of the refined foods.”

Learning how to read nutrition labels can also help keep your added sugar intake in check. Just underneath the listing for “Sugars,” there’s another line labeled, “Added sugars.” 

“Moderation in food choices is always important, but generally people don’t have to worry about overeating natural sugars found in foods,” Krebs said. 

For example, a single orange contains about 10 to 13 grams of sugar, but an eight-ounce glass of orange juice contains approximately 21 grams of natural sugar. Both contain a substantial amount of sugars, but “it’s better to eat the fruit than drink the juice,” Krebs said. “The advantage of eating fruit is that it fills you up and offers nutrients.” 

It’s making simple swaps like that – fruit for fruit juice, or sparkling water flavored with lemon for soda – that can make the most difference in the long run.

“If you plan your meals and generally have healthy foods,” Krebs said, “you can have treats.”

And, because dietary guidelines allow more added sugars based on higher caloric needs, “if you exercise, you need more calories and thus, you can have more added sugars,” she added.
When you make every bite count – and combine regular exercise as part of your routine – suddenly, enjoying the occasional soda or piece of chocolate cake seems more manageable. 

“Those kinds of changes can add up over time,” Krebs said.