What Happens When You Cut Out Added Sugar?

bakery treats

What Is ‘Added Sugar’?

Sugar is naturally in lots of foods like fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese, and even grains. But manufacturers also add different forms of sugar and syrup to processed and prepackaged foods like ice cream, cookies, candy, and soda, as well as to less obvious products like ketchup, spaghetti sauce, yogurt, bread, and salad dressing.

natural vs added sugars diptych

‘Natural’ vs ‘Added’ Sugars

Natural sugars are in whole foods. An apple, for example, can have around 20 grams. But it also has vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to nourish your body. An apple’s fiber can satisfy your hunger and make your body absorb the sugar from the fruit more slowly. Added sugars are extra calories with no extra nutrition. They’re “empty calories” that can lead to weight gain and other health problems.

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Healthier Weight

Too many calories, no matter where they’re from, will cause weight gain. But lots of added sugar in your diet could make you more likely to eat too much over the course of the day. Replace some of those empty calories with whole foods and you’ll feel fuller sooner and be less likely to overeat.   

triglyceride test

Lower Triglycerides

If your body weight is higher than it should be, you’re more likely to have high cholesterol numbers, including triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood. Cut added sugar and you could lower calories and body weight, which could improve your cholesterol. But it’s not just the weight loss. Even at the same weight as others, people who got less than 20% of their calories from added sugars tended to have lower triglycerides.

heart anatomy

Lower Heart Disease Risk

High triglycerides raise your risk of heart disease. Less added sugar can lower those levels and may help stop weight gain and fat buildup linked to heart disease. If you get more than 20% of your calories from added sugar — even if you’re at a healthy weight — you may be able to lower your heart disease risk when you cut back.

four healthy food groups

Better Nutrition

Even if your weight is already healthy, cutting added sugars can mean better nutrition, especially if you make it a point to replace those calories with whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and whole grains. These foods have more of the nutrients your body needs to repair and protect itself. And because they have fiber that helps your body absorb sugars more slowly, your blood glucose levels will be more stable.

smiling man

Healthier Teeth

Sugars are the primary food source for the bacteria that grow in your mouth and cause tooth decay. That can lead to cavities and more serious infections. It may be worse if you don’t brush and floss every day. Cutting back on sugars, especially added sugars in drinks like soda or punch, could help slow or stop the decay.

testing blood glucose

Lower Odds of Disease

People who have more added sugar in their diets are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, and other serious illnesses. You may be able to cut your risk for those conditions if you eat less of it. But it’s not yet clear whether the problem is added sugar itself or just the extra calories. Scientists are still trying to answer that question. 

can of soda

How Much Is Too Much?

Added sugars should make up less than 10% of a healthy daily diet. That’s about 11 teaspoons if you eat 1,800 calories a day. Some experts recommend even less than that: 9 teaspoons (38 grams) per day for men, and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women. A single 12-ounce can of soda has 39 grams (about 9 teaspoons) of sugar, close to a day’s worth by any measure.

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The Many Names of Added Sugar

It’s in about three-quarters of all prepackaged foods at the grocery store and has more than 50 names, so it can be hard to keep up. Some of the more common ones are corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, dextrose, agave, brown rice syrup, coconut palm sugar, barley malt syrup, and more. Look for a list of names from a reputable source if you want to be sure of what you’re buying.

food product label

How to Measure Added Sugars

Sugars are listed under the “Total Carbohydrates” heading on nutrition labels. Until recently, you might have had to guess if those were added sugars. But the FDA now requires labels to list exactly how much of that sugar is added. Some smaller companies have until 2021 to comply. Total calorie count is also important to good health. Too many calories are bad for you whether from sugar or anywhere else.

woman drinking glass of water

How to Cut Added Sugars

One sure way is to skip prepackaged foods in favor of whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. And when you buy ready-made foods, read nutrition labels. If you know how much sugar is in a product, you can limit how much you eat. And drink water instead of sodas and sports drinks. The added sugar in these beverages is even worse than many solid food sources in terms of nutrition and hunger satisfaction.

Beyond Medication: How to Stay on Top of Your Diabetes

By Stephanie Watson

When Sandy Narayanan was a child in India, she watched her father work hard to manage his type 2 diabetes. She remembers his needles and insulin and weekly visits to the doctor to check his blood sugar.

In 2008, at age 43, Narayanan herself was diagnosed with diabetes. Her first reaction was worry and dismay.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, for the rest of my life I’m going to be on needles,'” she says.

Then Narayanan thought of the lessons from her father. That included exercising regularly and limiting carbohydrates and starches. So Narayanan got expert help with her diet, kept a food log, and learned to adjust her eating portions.

Narayanan’s efforts paid off quickly. Her A1c, or blood sugar, levels dropped by five points, allowing her to quit insulin and stay off it for good.

“I was literally on insulin for (just) 10 weeks,” says Narayanan, who’s now a dietitian and certified diabetes educator.

Prescription: Healthy Habits

Type 2 diabetes isn’t like strep throat, where you take one medicine and get better. Medicine is only one part of your treatment. Watching what you eat, staying active, and managing your stress can be equally important, if not more. These lifestyle changes can help slow your beta cells from burning out. That’s when insulin-producing cells in the pancreas get overworked and die, which makes it harder for you to control your blood sugar levels.

“Lifestyle plays a huge role in type 2 diabetes,” says Deena Adimoolam, MD, an assistant professor at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine in New York. “If you do well enough with your lifestyle and lose weight, you can potentially come off your medications.”

Eat for Diabetes

There’s no special diet for diabetes. But there are two important rules to follow:

1. Eat less carbs, especially refined ones like sugar and white flour.

“That’s going to affect blood sugar the most,” says Jason Baker, MD, an endocrinologist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

You don’t have to count carbs, except to get your insulin dose right. To avoid temptations, keep sugary treats out of your house. Make it hard to indulge in junk food, Baker says.

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2. Watch your serving size. Most likely, this means shrink your food portions. Also, aim to fill half of your plate with veggies, a quarter with protein, and the rest with carbs and starch. Not all carbs are equal. Those from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans pack more nutrients than white bread, pasta, or rice.

Fill up on veggies and protein first, and eat your carbs last, suggests Yumi Imai, MD, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. That way, your body absorbs carbs more slowly. “Even if you eat the same amount of food, your blood sugar will not go up,” Imai says.

A glucose sensor or meter can help keep your nutrition on track. Check your blood sugar after you eat. Glucose spikes are a sign that your diet needs some changes.

Get Fitter and Stronger

With diabetes, a daily dose of fitness belongs in your treatment plan.

“I always describe exercise as a drug,” Baker says. When your muscles contract, they take in glucose to use for energy, which lowers your blood sugar temporarily. Exercise also helps you lose weight and makes your body respond better to insulin, which lowers your blood sugar over the long haul.

No need to turn into a fitness buff. Get off the elevator a few floors early. Park farther away from your favorite store. Walk for 15 minutes before you head out for your job. Do anything that you enjoy and keeps you moving, whether it’s yoga, dance, or basketball.

Add in some strength training to build muscle. “Muscle is one of the most sensitive tissues for taking up sugar,” Baker says.

De-Stress

Exercise has another benefit — it reduces stress. “Living with diabetes is really stressful,” Adimoolam says. “It’s hard every single day to think about what you eat and make sure you’re taking your medications.”

When your body is under stress, it releases cortisol, a hormone that raises blood sugar and makes your cells less responsive to insulin. These combined effects make diabetes harder to control. Stress also increases your appetite and makes you crave sweet or fatty foods.

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Find a stress-relief method that works for you. Narayanan has a pre-bedtime relaxation routine. “I stretch and take a moment to breathe and relax,” she says. Meditation, yoga, and walking are all good stress-busters.

About 1 in 4 people with diabetes also have depression. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to family or friends. Or seek out a support group through the American Diabetes Association. For one-on-one help, visit a therapist or psychologist.

Sleep is also critical. “When people sleep better, they notice their level of stress is lower,” Baker says. He suggests that you shut down your phone and stop checking emails and texts 2 hours before bedtime. Blue light from these devices can keep you awake.

Stick to Your Plan

Your treatment plan should serve as your roadmap. Stick to it, and you’ll be more likely to avoid diabetes complications like heart disease, blindness, and nerve damage.

See your doctor for regularly check-ups. If any part of your treatment doesn’t work for you, ask your doctor what you should do.

“It’s really important to find a good balance that helps you manage your diabetes and avoid these potential issues,” Adimoolam says. “The best way to do that is to make sure you have good communication with your treatment team.”

Narayanan motivates herself by focusing on the big goal: To stay healthy and to prevent serious complications that can often come with uncontrolled diabetes.

“It’s about reminding myself every morning that I have to watch what I eat and I have to exercise, because over the long run there are a lot of implications to not doing that,” she says. “This is for life.”