So long, sugar: Join our 28-Day Sugar Free Challenge
My 2-year-old is addicted to ketchup, dipping everything — even broccoli — in a generous red puddle. After she recently finished off an entire bottle, I was shopping for a replacement when I noticed some brands touting "reduced sugar" and "sweetened with honey."
That's when it hit me: Ketchup has sugar in it. Probably has way too much. No wonder it helps the broccoli go down. But I wondered, is sugar so bad for her? For me? For all of us?
Too much of it certainly is, doctors say. Some are even calling it "toxic," pointing to evidence that its overconsumption is linked to serious health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and liver disease.
It's shockingly easy to consume way, way too much sugar without realizing it. We know we're eating sugar when we grab a doughnut or a cookie. But it's also a major ingredient in packaged breads, pasta sauces, salad dressings, chicken stocks, flavored yogurts and tons of condiments, from ketchup to Sriracha.
Often, if a product is labeled "low-fat," it's full of sugar instead. And food and drinks that appear healthful can be far from sugar-free: Ingredients like organic brown rice syrup or molasses are added sugars, just like high-fructose corn syrup. All share the same negative health consequences when consumed in excess.
Taking a break from sugar is one way to take stock of your intake and perhaps make some healthy changes to your diet. That's why the Star Tribune is hosting the 28-Day Sugar Free Challenge in February. (Yes, we picked the shortest month of the year to make this not-so-sweet challenge a little easier.)
The goal is to cut out added sugar. Not just the stuff we dump in our coffee, but all the different syrups and sweeteners added to packaged foods.
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A University of North Carolina survey found that 68 percent of all packaged supermarket products have added sugar, leading many shoppers to essentially serve up dessert not as a treat but as each course of every meal. And while the American Heart Association advises men to consume no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar a day, women to curtail their intake to six teaspoons and kids to have even less, the average American downs 17 teaspoons, according to the latest federal estimate.
Sodas and sugary drinks make up a big part of this. Just one 12-oz can of Coca-Cola, with its 9.75 teaspoons of sugar, puts anyone over the Heart Association's recommended limit.
Added sugar is what has doctors so worried, not the naturally occurring sugars that we consume when we eat fresh fruits and unflavored dairy products. When sugars are naturally combined with fiber, nutrients or fat, we metabolize them differently (we also consume less sugar because we feel fuller faster).
The latest research suggests that when our body gets too much of sugar's fructose too quickly, we convert it to a kind of fat that's especially damaging.
"We have to deal with this additional amount of sugar somehow, and it gets stored in the body as fat," explained Dr. Samar Malaeb, an endocrinologist and nutrition expert with University of Minnesota Health.
"It's a very highly inflammatory type of fat tissue, it's not healthy fat tissue, and it secretes a lot of inflammatory substances that circulate in the blood."
This leads to insulin resistance, chronic inflammation and the deposition of cholesterol in the arteries, she said. That's where heart disease comes in.
28-day Sugar Free challenge
Dextrose, rice syrup, agave nectar, honey, sugar — however you say it, we're cutting it for the month of February. Join Star Tribune staffers and over 2,500 community members in taking the challenge.
“I'm sick of dieting. I want to be a healthier example for my children and be more aware of how many foods have added sugar.”
Features digital editor
“Sugar is in everything, and though I’ve focused on healthier eating in the past, I still get fooled by the sneaky spots it turns up.”
Assistant Managing Editor
“One word: chocolate. I have to have at least some dark chocolate every day. And I hate the feeling that I’m dependent on it.”
Senior lifestyle editor
Join the challenge
Not convinced yet? Read more
Here are the basics: Avoid any food or drink that has added sugar.
This means no more spoonfuls of the white stuff in your coffee, no baked goods prepared with sugar and no processed or packaged items that list it as an ingredient (added sugar can be listed dozens of ways, from “agave nectar” to “dextrose” to “rice syrup” -- we’ll help you decode the labels).
For this challenge, we’re just talking about added sugars, not the naturally-occuring sugars you eat when you have fresh or dried fruit and plain dairy products. Experts say these naturally occuring sugars are combined with fiber, nutrients or fat and impact the body much differently, without the dangerous health effects.
So: don’t reach for maple syrup, honey or stevia when you are craving sweet -- eat some fresh or dried fruit instead.
Beer, wine and hard liquors also don’t generally contain added sugars, so they aren’t off limits during the challenge (sugary mixers are another story).
Doctors and nutritionists also suggest avoiding artificial sweeteners to allow your palate and body to recalibrate and stop cravings.
Some folks, like Twin Cities trainer Leslie Branham, suggest finding a favorite treat that’s much LESS sweet and allowing it, like super dark, 88% chocolate.
“That dark, dark chocolate that tastes bitter and nasty tastes decadent and yummy in a week,” she said.
A sugar-free movement has been on the rise for several years, with books like Gary Taubes' "The Case Against Sugar," which compares sugar to tobacco. There also are cautionary documentaries, including "That Sugar Film," in which Australian Damon Gameau downed 40 teaspoons a day for 60 days, just through sports drinks, yogurts and condiments with "hidden sugars." Even though he maintained his activity level and caloric intake, within three weeks he gained weight and developed fatty liver disease.
Michelle Obama took on the issue as first lady and the Food and Drug Administration created a new line for "added sugar" in its nutrition label template. (It's set to be fully phased in by 2021.) Pediatricians now tell new parents to skip juice entirely and give their kids fresh or puréed fruit instead.
Nutritionist Brooke Alpert described sugar as "the new controlled substance" when she co-wrote "The Sugar Detox" a few years ago. She advises taking a sugar "break" or a "reset" just to make people aware of the added sugar in everyday choices, from coffee with vanilla syrup (more than 3 teaspoons) to a Moscow mule cocktail (more than 5 teaspoons).
A sugar break "brings an awareness," she said, "and then you're able to use that awareness to allow yourself to find that sweet spot where it's OK to have the cookie, but you're not putting sugar into your coffee."
The (too) sweet life
The American Heart Association recommends a limited amount of added sugar in your daily diet. The average American eats double the amount they should.
AHA recommends no more than
6 teaspoons of added sugar a day for women
and no more than 9 teaspoons
The average American consumes
17 teaspoons of added sugar per day.
AHA recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day for women.
and no more than 9 teaspoons for men.
The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day.
A few decades ago, nutritionists advised us to avoid fat and count calories and the food industry responded with products like Snackwells cookies, Pam spray oil and low-fat flavored yogurts loaded with sugar.
Now, we seek out "healthy fats" and the idea of counting calories in and calories out is outdated, said Leslie Branham, a Twin Cities personal trainer.
"It's really about the quality of the foods you're putting into your body," she said. "We are what we eat, and it's no joke."
Branham first gave up candy for 30 days back in 2015, breaking her own gummy bear habit. Now, she has led nearly a dozen monthlong online challenges to go without added sugar and processed foods.
Taking a break from added sugar can make a real difference in your health. Studies have shown that cutting out sugar for just two weeks can improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Dr. Donald Hensrud, who runs the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, said that the negative health impact of sugar is broader than many people realize.
Sugar adds extra calories that have no nutritional value, and can drain the body of vitamins because it needs certain nutrients in order to metabolize. It can cause dental cavities, inflammation, heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Finally, it can displace healthier foods or drinks (like when a child drinks soda instead of a glass of milk).
"It's a quadruple whammy," Hensrud said.
While some people's personalities might be better suited to trying to simply cut back gradually, it is safe to suddenly stop eating added sugar, Hensrud said. "As long as you're getting adequate calories, there really aren't any physical or health issues," he said.
The Star Tribune's 28-Day Sugar Free Challenge starts Feb. 1.
I'm signing up my whole family for the challenge. And my little ketchup addict is going cold turkey.
If we can do it, you can, too!