When Sugar Isn’t so Sweet

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It's 8:30 p.m. You've just finished dinner. You're feeling nice and satisfied when the sudden urge for something sweet hits.

You peer over the couch toward the kitchen to brainstorm desserts that might be lurking behind a cabinet or in the freezer. You open the pantry and decide on a handful of peanut M&M's. When the final taste of richness leaves your tongue, you quickly decide you need another handful, then another, then another.

After you've had far too much sugar, the guilt and stomachache start to set in. We all know the feeling. The good ol' sweet tooth game! This type of added sugar intake on a daily basis can have a real effect on our long-term health.

According to the Dietary Guidelines, most Americans exceed recommendations for added sugar, while not consuming enough fruit, vegetables and dairy on a daily basis. Sugar and high-fat foods are among the leading causes of excess weight gain in the United States, resulting in two-thirds of the population being overweight or obese.

At times, it's difficult for the average person to understand whether a food is high or low in added or natural sugar. You might be asking yourself, "Which sugars are good? Which are bad?" Some sugars occur naturally; some are added in during the processing of food. Regardless of the sugar type, the body breaks it down into glucose, which is used or stored as a main energy source.

The most common added sugars are high fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, cane sugar, fruit juice concentrates, syrups and molasses. Naturally occurring sugars generally come from fruit, dairy foods, 100% fruit and vegetable juice, and some vegetables. Foods high in added sugars often include sweetened beverages, baked goods and desserts. Foods high in added sugar tend to have minimal nutritional benefit.

As 1 gram of sugar contains 4 calories, the calories from high-sugar food items can add up quickly. If you consume sugar in large quantities, excess calories can result in weight gain. Excess weight in the form of overweight or obesity could lead to a multitude of chronic diseases and conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, or stroke.

What's the limit for added sugar intake per day?

The American Heart Association recommends 6 teaspoons or less (25 grams) of added sugar daily for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men. To put this into a little perspective: A standard 12-ounce soda has 39 grams of added sugar—equating to around 9 teaspoons and close to 160 empty calories.

The easiest way to become more comfortable with understanding what is added and what is natural sugar is by looking at the ingredient list.

A quick tip: The higher sugar is on the ingredient list, the higher the quantity of it. In other words, if high fructose corn syrup is second on the ingredient list, you can safely assume the food product comprises mainly high fructose corn syrup—an added sugar.

What do we do with this information? It turns out fruit—a natural sugar—makes for a great natural sweetener! Getting creative with how you use certain fruits can lead to healthier choices and overall reduced added sugar intake. Keep in mind: Fruit is still a sugar, though the pros of eating fruit over other high-sugar food items greatly outweigh the cons of potentially eating too much fruit, something highly unlikely in our Westernized eating habits.

Follow These Easy DO's and DON'TS When It Comes to Consuming Sugar


  • Limit your daily added sugar intake, based on your gender.
  • Become familiar with hidden sugar names, such as high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate and palm sugar.
  • Use fruits as natural sweeteners or stand-alone healthy dessert options.


  • Eliminate all foods that contain sugar from your diet.
  • Overconsume foods high in added sugar—soda, desserts, baked goods, et cetera.
  • Skip looking at labels and ingredient lists for added sugar amounts.

Liz Bissell is a native Grand Rapids dietitian dedicated to bringing better health to the people around her using holistic approaches. Her website Liz Bissell Wellness (lizbissellwellness.com) specializes in women's health, optimizing fertility and balancing one's hormones through nutrition, and deliciously healthy recipes to enjoy.

This article originally appeared in the December/January 2019 issue of West Michigan Woman.


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