Do I need to reduce my sugar intake?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has new guidelines recommending that fewer than 10% of daily calories should come from added sugar. Do I need to reduce my sugar intake?

Unfortunately, this question does not come with a simple answer. The first problem is that this recommendation presents a challenging math problem that most people don’t have to tools to solve:

  • Few of us count calories and, when working with individuals to improve their food habits, I almost never suggest that someone start counting calories. So, if you don’t know how many calories you’re eating, how can you figure out what 10% of your calories is??
  • This recommendation refers to added sugars, and the amount of sugar listed on nutrition facts panels does not distinguish between natural sugar and added sugar. For example, your yogurt might say that it contains 20g of sugar per serving, but what you’d have no way of knowing is that at least 6g of that is natural sugar already present in the yogurt. Based on this, we currently have no way of determining how much added sugar is in a given food.
  • Even if we could distinguish between natural sugar and added sugar, sugar is listed in grams, not calories. Ugh…more math (ex. 15g sugar x 4kcal/g = 60kcal).

So, what is there to do??

It is true that foods like cookies, cake and candy are low in nutrients. If these high sugar foods replace nutritious foods at many of your meals, it can be hard to meet your vitamin and mineral requirements and you can experience physical and mental health consequences. This doesn’t mean that you should cut out or avoid sugar completely though. It’s really common for attempts to cut out or avoid any food completely to actually result in increased consumption (it’s called the white bear effect – if I tell you not to think about white bears, you’re going to think about white bears. Similarly, if I tell you that you’re never allowed to eat chocolate again, you’re going to want to eat chocolate). Like with most ideas in nutrition, extremes aren’t helpful, and moderation is key (but what does moderation actually mean?!). Here are some tips to help you find the in between.

First and foremost, take steps to prevent over hunger

If you go long periods without eating or find yourself in a situation where you feel starving and desperate, it is your body’s natural response to crave a food that will bring blood sugar levels up quickly – cue intake of sugary foods. This is not a lack of will power. It is a natural response. The best thing you can do is to try to prevent this situation by eating often during the day and addressing your hunger when you first notice it.

When you have a craving, choose the real thing

Even after you have taken steps to prevent over hunger, it’s normal to have cravings. We eat for a variety of reasons – to meet our nutrient needs, for social reasons, for pleasure, for comfort – and all of these reasons are important. Ignoring your cravings or attempting to choose a ‘healthier’ alternative can lead to the craving becoming even stronger. It can get to the point where you need a whole tub of ice cream to satisfy the craving instead of a bowl. Instead of avoiding cravings, allow yourself permission to eat and enjoy the foods you love.

Check out your options

  • When buying regular everyday foods like cereals, granola bars, yogurts, or pasta sauce, it can be helpful to compare brands so that you can make an informed choice.
  • This might mean comparing nutrition labels to choose a brand with less sugar (although remember, nutrition labels don’t separate between natural sugar and added sugar. This means that a cereal or granola bar with dried fruit will automatically have more grams of sugar. This doesn’t mean that it is less nutritious).
  • Ingredients lists list ingredients by weight. If you are looking for a cereal or granola bar that will keep you full for a little bit longer, it might be helpful to look for one with “whole grain” as the first ingredient. It might also be helpful to locate sugar (or other sweeteners like brown sugar, honey, glucose, rice syrup, glucose-fructose, high fructose corn syrup, agave, maple syrup) and look for a brand that lists it further down the list.
  • Some people like to decide how much sugar is in their foods so that they can choose options that suit their tastes. This might mean buying plain yogurt or plain oatmeal and adding sugar, honey or maple syrup so that you can choose the sweetness rather than buying products that are already sweetened.