American College of Nutrition Certified Nutrition Specialist | Author | Professor of Nutrition


Added Sugars: 37% Come from Soda

Avoiding added sugars is the fastest way to reduce inflammation, pain, and keep our body the size we want it to be. Its simple, but its not always easy. Sugar tastes good! Because sugar is a flavor everyone likes, its added to most processed foods. The consequence is we now are used to eating really sweet foods and drinking really sweet drinks.

I am annoyed that this topic is still relevant. We know all the sugars added to our processed foods lead to chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. What used to be Adult-Onset Diabetes is now just Type-2 Diabetes because teenagers are developing it. I feel we are being manipulated into craving overly sweet foods, and then paying the price with disease and obesity. Its not right.

Soda accounts for 37% of the added sugars in our diet.  glass of soda next to sugar cubes

So, the easiest way to reduce added sugars is to stop drinking soda. One average bottle of soda has anywhere between 8 and 12 teaspoons of sugar. Sweetened drinks like sweet tea and lemonade aren’t far behind.

Please don’t just switch to diet soda or diet sweet drinks. The artificial sweeteners mess with the good bacteria in our gut, and can increase inflammation.

Iced tea is a great alternative, just not sweet tea. Add some lemon to real tea to jazz up the taste. If you can’t stand it without sugar, add a little and slowly reduce the amount until you get used to the taste of just tea. Its a beverage that helps our health instead of hurting it.

Flour-based desserts like donuts and cookies account for 12% of our added sugars.

These desserts also account for 6.4% of our total calories, which doesn’t sound like much but adds up quickly. Add it to soda’s 5.3% of our total calories, and that’s almost 12% of the calories we eat as a society coming from sugary junk food. We can eliminate these foods, lose over 10% of our calories each day, and barely notice it.

What to Do

Eliminating all desserts sounds awful, so let’s not do that. We can avoid all mass-manufactured, pre-packaged sweets and just eat the really good stuff. My usual rule is if its homemade, or really well made, I will eat it. Otherwise its a no-go. Donuts are always a no-go, they are just sugar fried in fat, and topped with frosting.

Its hard to determine which sugars in a product come from natural sources like the grains in cereal or the dairy in yogurt, and which come from added sugar. The new 2018 food nutrition labels add a line for added sugars to help make this clear. (Oops, the administration moved the deadline back to 2020, but some manufacturers are acting responsibly and implementing the new food labels now.)

Each teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams. So when you see 12 grams of added sugars on a label, you know that equals three teaspoons.

It will be shocking to see how much added sugar is in some products.

Its obvious that donuts, soda and cookies are full of sugar, but its surprising that most fruit-flavored yogurts add anywhere between 3 and 5 teaspoons of sugar in each little cup. That’s the same amount as an average-sized candy bar. Please don’t just eat the candy bar. Pick plain yogurt and add fruit and if you need to a little sugar or honey.

In researching the added sugars in instant oatmeals, I found many of them not only contain a lot of sugar but also unhealthy oils and artificial colors. The “low sugar” varieties contain artificial sweeteners. Please make your own basic oatmeal and add real fruit to it. Even if you add a teaspoon of sugar, its less than in a packet and will taste so much better. Click here for a super-easy recipe for cook-once, eat-all-week oatmeal.

Food manufacturers add sugar to their foods so we eat more. Many restaurants super-size drinks so we get lots of sweet, and then order more food for the salty counterpart. Sugary foods and drinks can be addictive. We get so used to foods tasting overly sweet and salty that we lose the appreciation of subtler flavors in real foods.

Think about a good piece of fruit or a really great tomato – the flavors light up your whole tongue, not just one or two spots. We can get our taste buds back, and the more whole foods we eat, the more discerning our palate becomes. We start to crave more complex flavors, not just sugar and salt.

I won’t promise that you will never want sweet foods again. I will promise that once you eliminate most added sugars you will find many of the processed sweets don’t taste as good as they used to taste. Which makes them easy to avoid. It takes some time, but the payoff in less pain and lower risk of diabetes, heart disease and arthritis is so worth it.

Our bodies are designed for real, natural, whole foods. Processed, sugary foods lead to poor health, mostly because our bodies aren’t designed to handle them. Give your body the natural food it wants, and it will reward you.

Instead of a granola bar or “protein” bar, choose much healthier nuts and fruit as a snack. The only thing holding that bar together is sugar, and maybe a little palm oil. Grab fruit when you want something sweet. You’ll get nutrients, fiber and taste satisfaction. Just try, soon you will see for yourself.

I’m not talking about “health food” that tastes like cardboard. Yuck. I don’t eat that either. I am talking about whole, good foods that taste like nature intended. If you’ve vacationed anywhere that has fabulous food, you know what I’m talking about.

Here in America we’ve gotten away from some of that, but we can get it back. We have to get it back or we will never reverse this epidemic of chronic disease. Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are not inevitable as we get older. They are the result of too much processed food, too much sugar and salt, and too few nutrients coupled with too little physical activity.

Avoiding added sugars is one big step we can take to get back to our best health.

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