Life really is sweet: the average female fortysomething eats about 33.5 kilograms of sugar every year — that’s like polishing off a candy sculpture the size of my 10-year-old daughter with three 2-kg bags of granulated sugar sprinkled on top. While that might sound like a delicious long-term project, research shows that such a high-sugar diet greatly raises the risk of developing diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease. (It’s estimated that by 2020 one in three Canadians will be living with diabetes.) Since dark chocolate, gummy bears and maple syrup are three of my favourite things, I asked Jennifer Salib Huber, a registered dietitian and naturopath in Dartmouth, N.S., for tips on taming a sweet tooth.
Is sugar more harmful than just empty calories?
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Sugar is a really complicated one. We’re hardwired to derive not only pleasure but also survival from foods that contain sugar. But our ability as a society to make large quantities of sugar and sugary foods has really increased on a grand scale. A hundred years ago, if we were going to have an apple pie, it was going to take a lot of work, so we saved it for special occasions. Now we can go to any grocery store, any time of day, and have full access to pie. Not only has our access to sugar changed, but how we use it has changed, and we’re seeing the effects of it on our health. It’s not as innocent as we thought it was.
Are some sugars better than others? Please tell me maple syrup is OK
I can’t say honey or maple syrup is better than white sugar. They’re less processed, contain minerals and can be local, but in terms of sugar content they’re about the same. Agave, given that it’s over 50 per cent fructose, is not a better choice in my opinion. Stevia is a non-caloric sweetener that doesn’t have any known harmful effects, but not everyone loves the bitter taste. Sweeteners derived from sugar alcohol like erythritol or xylitol can cause bloating and gastric side effects. We’re in a Catch-22: the alternatives that taste good are probably not great for us, and too much of the real thing isn’t great for us either. Really, you need to reset your sugar threshold.
Where should I start?
Cut out the added sugar — in your tea and coffee, and on your cereal. That’s a hard step because those are things we often do just by habit. Then start taking inventory of your food choices and see where you can improve. Make sure your meals are balanced with protein, fats and carbohydrates so that you’re not still hungry. If you just have a salad for lunch, you’re probably going to be more tempted to have that muffin, which might have 30 g of sugar.
Hidden sugars, like in wholegrain bread, make cutting back tricky. How can we be smarter consumers?
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When looking at the nutrition labels, if you can find something that has less than 5 g of sugar per serving that’s a low-sugar choice. Make sure the added sugars are far down the list. Frozen dinners can be a big source of hidden sugars — you can get 15 to 20 g of sugar just in your lunch. Ideally, you want to work toward a whole-food diet where most of your sustenance isn’t coming from a package, box or can.
All this talk makes me really want a cookie.
If you’re craving something and you can’t easily distract yourself from it, find a way to honour that craving. Have a piece of cheese or a slice of apple with peanut butter — something satisfying so you don’t end up feeling deprived and wanting that cookie 10 times more. We have emotional relationships with our food. If there’s one food that gives me comfort, pleasure and joy, it’s a really good peanut butter ball. I don’t know if I could ever find a substitute: I’ve tried making lower sugar ones and it’s just not the same. So I have them a couple times a year. When you do have a treat, take time to smell it, taste it and then really enjoy it.
Kathryn Hayward is a fortysomething senior editor at Today’s Parent, and a mom of two.