The average person in the U.S. gets about 10 percent of his daily calories from added sugars, and about one-tenth of Americans get up to 25 percent of their calories from added sugars. Most of these added sugars are in the form of highly processed, refined sugars that have no nutritional value. They cause weight gain, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Cutting refined sugars out of your diet is a big step toward improved health, but you have to know what to look for on nutrition labels.
Some sugars are found naturally in foods, such as the fructose in fruits and the lactose in dairy products. These aren't bad for you in moderation because they come packaged with other nutrients -- fiber and vitamin C in fruit and protein and calcium in milk, for example.
Added sugar refers to any type of sugar added by manufacturers to processed foods. Some of these are natural sugars -- for example, honey, molasses and raw sugar -- but most of them are refined, which means highly processed and stripped of any trace nutrients -- think white sugar, powdered sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Although eating too much of any type of sugar -- natural or refined -- isn't good for you, the refined sugars are the ones to eject from your diet ASAP. They are metabolized very quickly and cause unhealthy rises and drops in blood sugar.
The main food sources of added and refined sugars in the American diet are sweet snacks, desserts and sugary beverages. This includes candy, cakes, cookies, pies, cobblers, sweet rolls, pastries, donuts and dairy desserts, such as ice cream. Regular sodas, sweetened teas, energy drinks, fruit punch and sports drinks are often loaded with refined sugar. Cutting out these main culprits will remove the majority of refined sugar sources from your diet.
Other foods are sneakier sources of refined sugars that many people wouldn't think contain sugar. Flavored yogurts, granola, energy bars and cereals are often packed with refined sugars. Salad dressings, teriyaki and barbecue sauce, marinades, ketchup and pasta sauce don't taste sweet, but look on the ingredients label and you're likely to find added refined sugar. Check the nutrition label whenever you're buying packaged foods and look not only for white sugar and corn syrup but sugar under any one of its many other names, including sucrose, dextrose, malt syrup, maltose and invert sugar.
Knowing what to look for on labels is half the battle; actually being able to resist reaching for refined sugar foods is the other half. Eschewing processed foods in favor of fresh whole foods will help you avoid most sources of refined sugar, even while you're grocery shopping, as refined sugars are mostly found in the packaged food aisles.
Base your diet on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, seafood and nuts and seeds. Choose plain, low-fat dairy products and flavor them yourself by adding fresh fruit to yogurt or cottage cheese.
Keep dried nut and fruit mixes with no added sugar on hand to snack on instead of sugary energy bars, and drink water and unsweetened tea rather than sugary beverages.
When dining out, ask your server for recommendations on dishes without added sugar. Skip dessert, or share one dessert for the whole table so you can have a taste but not overload on sugar.
You can include the occasional sweet treat in your diet, especially if it's made with wholesome ingredients like whole-wheat flour and honey. But it's important not to go overboard, even with "natural" sugars. Women should limit their daily added sugar consumption to 100 calories, and men should limit theirs to 150 calories, recommends the American Heart Association. That's 25 and 38 grams -- or 6 and 9 teaspoons -- of added sugar per day, respectively.