Sugar is complicated. We often crave sugar because consuming sweets triggers pleasure centres in our brain, releasing dopamine. The urge to eat things like candy, or drink pop is similar to chasing a “high.” Another reason we crave sugar is because it’s such a quick source of energy, but humans don’t actually need it to survive. Sugar is often demonized in the media, and sugar-free products, sugar substitutes, and artificial sweeteners are everywhere. For the average person, it can all be pretty confusing. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, and there always seems to be one or two new diet fads making the rounds. If sugar is the enemy, does it mean that fruit sugar is bad for you? Should we be worried about the sugar in blueberries? Is natural sugar bad for you? Is all sugar bad for you?
Luckily, there is a short answer: no, not all sugar is bad for you. Fruits and vegetables should be the main part of your diet—never worry about the amount of sugar in them. Because fruits and vegetables are so full of fibre, it isn’t possible to overindulge; you’d get too full before you’d get even close to running the risk of consuming too much sugar. They’re also filled with so many other important nutrients, you can eat away, guilt-free. Don’t stress about categories like high sugar fruits or low sugar fruits. Eat them, and you’ll be giving your body what it needs.
When is sugar a problem?
The kind of sugar you should try to avoid is added sugar. Consuming added sugar piles on empty calories—devoid of nutrients—without making you feel full. Added sugars are the ones that are used to make things taste sweeter than they naturally are. Natural sugar additives, like honey, maple syrup, and brown rice syrup are better options than highly-refined sugar, but they are still added sugar. They have the same number of calories, are added to other foods to sweeten them, and don’t pack a powerful nutritional punch like sweet fruits and vegetables.
The key to remember, as with most things, is moderation. There’s nothing wrong with having sweet treats once in a while, adding some maple syrup to your smoothie, or adding sugar to your baked goods. Another key is awareness; if you learn to read food labels and watch out for the places that added sugars usually hide, you’ll be able to avoid consuming them unconsciously.
Where does added sugar hide?
It’s important to read ingredient lists, because added sugar is pretty sneaky stuff. It makes things taste good, and food companies take advantage of that. Sauces, condiments, breads, dressings, cereals, protein bars, baked beans, canned and dried fruit—it’s everywhere. You have to look, because it’s even in things that you wouldn’t consider to be sweet—it can be used to enhance the flavours of your favourite savoury foods. And just because something is natural and organic, it doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest choice. Read the labels. As a consumer, it can be a lot to wrap your head around, but luckily, food labels mean transparency. If you take the time to read them, then added sugars can’t actually be hidden.
Beverages are another way that added sugars sneak into our diets. Soft drinks and some juices contain so much sugar, it’s scary. There are some juices with less sugar, but it’s still best to stick with water or herbal tea throughout the day. If that seems boring, try infusing them with different fruit and herb combinations to satisfy flavour cravings without added sugar. If you take sugar in your coffee or tea, try a week or two without it. You might be surprised and end up not missing it at all. Also, it’s important to be aware of alcohol intake in general, but it’s also a place where sugars can sneak in.
How can you cut down on sugar?
Cutting down your added-sugar intake starts at the grocery store. Read labels and compare products that seem similar, even if that means branching out from your usual brands. Buy the products that have less added sugar, or even better, none at all. Sometimes it’s pretty simple: products like non-dairy milks, nut and seed butters, and dried fruit don’t have many ingredients, and they’ll often advertise “unsweetened” or “no added sugar” right on the label. With other products, comparing nutrition labels, ingredients, and serving sizes might take a little more detective work or inspire you to put your math skills to good use. Over time, it’ll get easier to figure it out, and you’ll have built up a new list of go-to products.
Although not always possible, the easiest way to control your intake of added sugars is to make things at home. Sauces and dressings are big culprits, so they’re a good place to start if you feel like some kitchen experimentation. Buying packaged baked goods—from granola bars and muffins, to breads and cookies—is another way that added sugars can find their way into your diet. If you make them at home, you can experiment with cutting down the amount of sugar in recipes (you’d be surprised how much of it is unnecessary) and with using alternative sweeteners—like dates and dark chocolate. If you’re the one cooking, it means you have the control. You might even start to notice that you prefer some of your go-to recipes with a bit less sugar.
It’s important to examine the convenience foods you most rely on—sometimes they’re pushed on consumers as being quick and easy, when there isn’t really a difference. For example, if you stock up on oatmeal packets with flavouring as quick breakfast options, you’re allowing added sugars to sneak in, and you aren’t really saving that much time. Try buying plain, whole oats instead, and adding your own toppings, like stewed berries, or apples and cinnamon. You can cook whole oats in the microwave if you want, just like the packets, or use the stove if you prefer. They’re even great uncooked, or soaked overnight. The best part is that the amount of sugar in your oatmeal will be completely in your hands.
As far as concerns about sugar go, it all boils down to favouring a whole-food, plant-based diet. If most of what you eat is coming from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, you don’t have to feel guilty about occasional indulgences. You don’t ever have to count calories, or “diet,” or deprive yourself. Your food will be naturally free of added sugars, and it’ll all balance out. If you keep your eyes on nutrition labels and ingredient lists when purchasing packaged foods and beverages, you’ll have a good sense of what you’re consuming, and you’ll be empowered to steer clear of sneaky added sugars.