Savoring Sugar Wisely: Navigating Added Sugars in Your Diet

Savoring Sugar Wisely: Navigating Added Sugars in Your Diet

With the sweetness of Valentine's Day behind you, it's good timing to evaluate your relationship with sugar, keeping in mind there will be many more opportunities to splurge as the celebratory events of Spring and Summer approach. 

While sugary treats and indulgent desserts may bring temporary joy, it's important to consider how sugar consumption affects health in the long run. (Don't worry, this article covers how to savor sugar wisely.)

Understanding Sugars: Added vs. Naturally Occurring

First, let’s differentiate added sugars from naturally occurring sugars. Added sugars are just that: sugars that are added during either processing or preparation. Conversely, naturally occurring sugars – typically found in fruit and dairy-milk derivatives – are an inherent ingredient and thus not easily removed. 

Aside from fruit, many plant foods have a gram or two of naturally occurring sugars as well. For example, if there is a gram of sugar in a serving of plain old-fashioned oats or nuts, there is no need for concern.

However, if your cereal has honey or evaporated cane juice, or if your snacks have dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, or brown sugar, etc., those count as added sugar. Your food label will list the “sugars” in grams: the number of grams listed is the sum of both naturally occurring sugars and added sugar.

As of fairly recently, companies have been required to make a note on the label as to how many sugars were added during processing under “Added Sugars.” If it’s a mixed food like fruit-containing yogurt for example, you’ll need to review the ingredient list to decipher where the sugars are coming from.

The Importance of Choosing Naturally Occurring Sugars

Now that you know how to tell which is added and which is not, what you do with that information is key. As part of a balanced diet, prioritizing foods containing naturally-occurring sugars is a wise choice.

Provided moderation is in practice, these foods are worth selecting because the nutritional benefits they offer far surpass the concerns of accumulating naturally-occurring sugars for most healthy individuals. They also either typically contain fiber or easily-absorbed protein, both of which increase satiety, making it difficult to overeat them. 

On the other hand, ultra-processed foods and beverages containing hefty amounts of added sugars are easy to overconsume. This is not only due to the lack of fiber and protein, but also to the hyper-palatability of foods that combine high levels of sugar and sodium, representing many typical snacks in the standard American diet.

The Key to Enjoying Sugars Wisely

Moderation is especially important when it comes to added sugars: both those added during food prep at home, and in convenience foods. Consuming foods or beverages with added sugar can fill you up, leaving less space for nutrient-rich meals, all the while increasing calorie intake beyond what can be easily expended. Additionally, excessive added sugar intake can increase your risk for diabetes, elevated triglycerides, and tooth decay.

Balancing Sweetness in Your Diet

Sweetened foods can certainly contribute to the sweetness of balanced living, and don’t need to be vilified across the board, again provided that moderation is in play. To decide which foods with added sugar to savor and which to skip, consider these 3 things: 

  1. Nutritional Value:
    Assess the nutritional content of the food as a whole, considering what nutritional benefits the food provides. Prioritize those rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and/or protein.
  2. Frequency of Consumption:
    While occasional treats can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet, frequent consumption of high-sugar foods can lead to health issues over time, or even in the short-term for those with pre-diabetes or diabetes, or metabolic syndrome.
  3. Portion Control:
    Pay attention to portion sizes when consuming foods with added sugars. Even the healthier options can become problematic if consumed excessively. Practice mindful eating and portion control to avoid overindulgence.

Why limit added sugars? Not only are the estimated 385 calories from added sugars that Americans average daily amounting to extra weight, they are leading to illnesses that take us far from our best!

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About the Author


Sohailla is a registered dietitian, author, and international speaker. She has been a group exercise instructor since she was a teenager.

She is a voice of reason – bringing clarity amidst all the nutrition fads and confusing misinformation that abound in the health and fitness space.

She's a mom of 2 boys, now 17 and 20, and a 14 year old diva she adopted from China. She married the fella that asked her to the Senior Prom: though she said no to Prom, they’ve been married for over 25 years.