Is sugar the most delicious evil on the planet?

Posted September 14

Sugar seems to be the most delicious evil on the planet.

It’s blamed for diabetes, obesity, hyper kids, cavities, inflammation, food addiction, fatty-liver and cancer.

Sugar causing hyperactivity in kids has been disproved in numerous studies (kids are more likely just excited because it’s Halloween/Christmas/a birthday party, etc.), but there is some truth to other claims; a diet high in sugar can lead to eating more calories than needed, which leads to weight gain, which can lead to insulin resistance and fatty-liver disease. It is well established through research that regular high intake of sugars over time lead to elevated blood lipids, some to abdominal fat gains, and biomarkers of inflammation.

However, sugar is not inherently toxic like downing a spoonful of cyanide, and eating it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be diseased.

Certainly, large amounts of added sugar in a diet are cause for concern. Sugars are often added to foods to heighten sweetness but are added without the fibers, vitamins, minerals, proteins and healthy fats that are in whole foods. These products are commonly referred to as “empty calories,” meaning you get energy in calories but very little nutritional value otherwise.

High-sugar foods are everywhere. When I was a new mom, acutely aware of everything going into my toddler’s mouth, my eyes were opened to its pervasiveness. Doctors offices, grocery store check-outs, friends' houses, every social event, church activity and grandma is doling out sweets by the fistful.

According to a large national survey, most American adults eat about 20 teaspoons (a little less than ½ cup) of added sugar daily. This isn’t including the sugar naturally occurring in foods, this is just the sugar added in processing.

In contrast, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans produced by a panel of nutrition scientists recommends we consume less than 10 percent of our calories from added sugars. In an average 2,000-calorie diet, that would be 12 teaspoons, so about half the average amount eaten daily. The American Heart Association sets its recommendation at half that, 6-9 teaspoons per day, which can be difficult to do.

The changes coming to nutrition facts labels will be helpful in identifying added sugars because they will be explicitly stated, but here are several other practical ways you can look at reducing added sugar today.

How to start eating less sugar

Eat mostly whole foods

Whole foods are considered the most basic, least processed, forms of a food available. The term includes whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, meats and some oils and some dairy. A diet full of whole foods leaves less room for foods high in added sugars and means that when added sugars are eaten, they’re a smaller percentage of the diet and likely not a concern.

Ease into things

Most who cut out all sugar for a period of time can’t maintain it and often find themselves overdoing the sugar once they go back to eating it. In reality, a bit of added sugars are perfectly acceptable in a healthy diet. You don’t need to cut out all sugar. If you’re ready to make a lifelong change, take baby steps and practice cutting back on high-sugar foods instead.

Try eating smaller portions of desert or adding less sugar to foods like baked goods. “If you put three packets of sugar in your coffee each morning, cut back to two, then one. If you like juice, start mixing in sparkling water and reducing the amount of juice,” suggests dietitian Lindsay.

Mix and match

If you or your kids prefer the sweetest options, try to mix full-sugar varieties with low-sugar options. Dietitian Maria Adams suggests “mix(ing) Honey Nut Cheerios with regular Cheerios and vanilla yogurt with plain yogurt,” and Sally Kuzemchak, RD, has other examples of going halfsies here.

Use natural sugars in fruit to sweeten

“For example, use fresh fruit instead of jam or jelly, like fresh sliced strawberries for strawberry jam in your pbj,” recommends dietitian Caroline Kaufman. Bananas are great in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, thin apple slices or craisins in chicken salad, or grapes in tuna salad are other good options for sandwiches.

Tina Carlucci, RD, suggests “ tak(ing) advantage of seasonal fruit in things like yogurt, oatmeal, cereal … even better … cook the fruit (in oven, skillet or grill) to caramelize the sugars for an even bigger burst of sweetness without any added sugar.”

You can find a great roundup of no-sugar added home-cooked goods here.

Use spices to enhance flavor

“Cinnamon and vanilla extract and/or vanilla bean are great add-ins that can reduce or replace added sugar in recipes. I love adding both to smoothies, Greek yogurt, and oatmeals,” offers Amy Gorin, MS, RDN.

Dietitian Jessica Spiro says, “I find that spa water is a great replacement to sugary drinks. Just add cucumbers slices or lemon water with herbs like mint or basil to iced water and you have a tasty beverage without added sugar. Plus it's a great way to sneak in antioxidants to your diet!”

Notice and limit hidden sugars

Because we prefer sweeter foods and food manufactures prefer to sell food, they often add sugar in unsuspecting places. Peanut butter, dressings and sauces like pasta sauce, whole grain cereal and yogurt. I’m a big proponent of no-judgment cooking and parenting. Not everyone can take the time to make pasta sauce from scratch, and you shouldn’t feel bad about using bottled sauce, but perhaps you can choose a variety with less added sugar.

Eating less sugar is doable and worth a sensible effort. What could you do today to make a change?

Erica Hansen, a dietitian-nutritionist, advocates getting back to the basics in the kitchen with real food for real life is the first step to improving vitality and longevity. Find her online at or @realfoodfixes on Instagram/Facebo


Please with your account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all