We like to think we know what's good for us. Sure, beer, burgers, and ice cream make occasional appearances in our diet, but for the most part, we make smart food choices throughout the day.
Wrong. When we tallied up the amount of sugar in a day's worth of relatively healthy meals and snacks (yogurt with fruit and granola, a whole-wheat turkey wrap, trail mix, and a homemade stir-fry), we were shocked. We even skipped dessert!
There's a lot of sugar hiding in everyday food (both added and natural sugars are included in the counts below). Check out the stats, get more info on the type of sugar you should try to avoid, and find ideas for healthy swaps.
Yogurt With Berries and Granola:*
6 ounces low-fat vanilla yogurt: 29 grams of sugar
1 cup mixed berries: 8.5 grams
1/2 cup granola: 12 grams
*see notes below on added vs. natural sugars
Coffee Cake and Coffee With Almond Milk:
1/2 slice coffee cake: 17 grams
1 cup coffee: 0 grams
1/2 cup almond milk: 3.5 grams
4 ounces honey-roasted turkey: 4 grams
1 whole-wheat tortilla wrap: 2 grams
2 teaspoons honey mustard: 4 grams
Handful of lettuce: 0.5 grams
1/2 avocado: 4 grams
6 tablespoons (about 1/3 cup) nuts, raisins, chocolate chips: 22 grams
Pineapple Sweet and Sour Chicken:
3 ounces skinless chicken breast: 0 grams
3 tablespoons bottled sweet and sour sauce: 18 grams
1/2 cup egg noodles: 0 grams
1/2 cup canned pineapple chunks: 15 grams
1/3 tablespoon vegetable oil: 0 grams
1 tablespoon soy sauce: 0 grams
1/3 cup red bell pepper: 2 grams
Grand Total: 141.5 grams of sugar
Whoa. The other surprise? All of this food adds up to just under 2,000 calories, which is completely fine for men and women—maybe even on the low end, depending on activity levels, says Elisa Zied, R.D.N., nutritionist and author of Younger Next Week.
So How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
Less than you may think. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests limiting added sugar to less than 10 percent of calorie intake. If you eat 2,000 calories per day, your goal is to eat less than 200 calories (50 grams) of added sugar.
The American Heart Association is even stricter: It recommends women consume no more than 100 calories (24 grams) of added sugar per day; men, no more than 150 calories (36 grams). Yep, the breakfast and mid-morning snack above already surpass these recommendations.
Added Vs. Natural Sugars
Notice how we keep talking about added sugar. That's the kind you really want to cut down, Zied says—not the naturally occurring sugar in fruit or dairy. The yogurt, for example, has about 12 grams of natural sugar and 17 grams of added sugar in a six-ounce container. (Since labels don't discriminate between the two kinds, you'll have to do some digging online to find this info.)
So let's revisit breakfast. Leaving out the 8.5 grams of natural sugar from the fruit and the 12 grams from the yogurt brings down the total amount of added sugar in the breakfast to 29 grams. Still a lot.
And some more surprising news: There's not a big difference in the way your body treats sugar found naturally in fruit and sugar added to candy and cookies, at least from a chemical standpoint, says Rania Batayneh, M.P.H, nutritionist and author of The One One One Diet. "Both of these sugars are ultimately broken down into fructose and glucose, which are metabolized the same once they reach your gut," she says.
What does differ: how fast they’re broken down. "Because the sugar in fruits is paired with fiber and water, it’s released much more slowly into your body, providing you with a consistent stream of energy," Batayneh says. "Added sugar, without fiber and water, is broken down immediately, leading to a surge in insulin and blood sugar levels. As a result, you don’t feel full at all—you just crave more sugar."
What Else Is So Bad About Sugar?
Maybe a better question would be what isn't. Sugar has been shown to increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Cutting back on sugar may lead to tons of benefits for your body, including lower blood pressure, reduced risk of cancer, a sharper brain, clearer skin, and fewer cravings.
Another downside of eating too much added sugar? It takes the place of calories in foods that provide lots of nutrients, Zied says. Plus, many sugary foods and beverages are easy to overdo (think of cookies, candy, soda, or even condiments like ketchup).
When it comes to yogurt, go Greek, Batayneh says. She likes Chobani's Simply 100 Vanilla Greek Yogurt, which contains 100 calories, 7 grams of sugar, and 12 grams of protein. She also suggests limiting granola to a quarter cup to cut back on sugar. Or swap it completely for chopped nuts like almonds or walnuts, Zied says.
Why do pastries and cookies always seem to appear at work just when we get hangry before lunch? Indulging in one of these high-sugar foods can lead to additional cravings, Batayneh says. "Without protein, you set yourself up for a blood sugar roller coaster," she says.
If you really want a bite, go ahead and #treatyoself once per day, keeping the portion small. "Choose the treats that you really enjoy and skip the ones that you’re eating simply because they’re there," Batayneh adds.
Zied also suggests keeping nutrient-rich foods on hand for snacking at the office. (Need inspiration? Here are 42 healthy and portable snacks.)
A turkey wrap for lunch looks pretty good, according to the experts. One tweak for even more nutrition: "Adding a side salad or raw veggies like carrots and snap peas can bump up the antioxidant, vitamin, and fiber count, without adding sugar or fat," Batayneh says. "Plus, their bulk will make you feel more satisfied."
It's easy to go way past the recommended quarter-cup portion of trail mix, Batayneh says. A better choice: a KIND Dark Chocolate Nuts and Sea Salt Bar. "At 200 calories and five grams of sugar, this snack will satisfy your sweet tooth without going overboard—it's really like portion-controlled trail mix," she says.
As long as you're not relying on delivery, a homemade dish like stir-fry isn't too bad. Still, something like chicken with steamed broccoli and sweet and sour sauce on the side will give you all the flavor, while keeping sugar to a minimum, Zied says. (Or try one of these quick and easy stir-fry recipes that are even better than takeout.)
Yes, most of us eat way too much sugar—no matter how virtuous we think we are. And science has made it clear that added sugar is doing some serious damage to our bodies. Being aware of our choices throughout the day (try keeping a food diary) is a good place to start.
While it can be tough to cut sugar in the beginning (it's addictive, after all), Zied reminds us that the less sugary food you eat, the less sugary food you want. The bottom line? "Choose only the sugary foods you love most," Zied says. "And enjoy them in small portions."