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To some people, this might sound like healthy eating for a day:
• For breakfast, a bowl of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran and a serving of Mott’s cinnamon applesauce
• For lunch, a 6-ounce container of Dannon low-fat mixed berry yogurt and two Nature Valley granola bars
• For dinner, a Healthy Choice frozen honey balsamic chicken entrée with Del Monte sliced peaches in heavy syrup for dessert.
But to local nutritionists and others trying to follow the new U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines, those three meals illustrate what’s wrong with the way most Americans eat. Together, those foods contain about 140 grams of added sugar — almost three times as much as the guidelines recommend people consume daily. Read the labels on those items and you’ll find ample amounts of regular white sugar, brown sugar syrup, high-fructose corn syrup and honey. Ingredient lists for myriad other products on grocery store shelves include other synonyms for sugar: raw sugar, dextrose, fructose and maltose, to name a few.
“Sugar is sugar. That’s what I want people to understand,” Natalie Smith, registered dietitian at the Lawrence + Memorial Cancer Center in Waterford, said this week. “The more sugar you eat, the higher your insulin goes, and the higher your risk for diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, certain types of cancer, obesity and chronic diseases related to obesity.”
Released on Jan. 7, the guidelines, which are updated every five years, emphasize overall healthy eating throughout life with diets rich in a variety of vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, lean meats including seafood and vegetable-based proteins and limits on saturated fats, sodium and sugars. The guidelines affect the foods chosen for school lunch programs and food assistance programs and are used by professional dietitians.
While much of the advice follows what Americans have been hearing for years, the specific recommendation about sugar intake has been attracting the most attention, highlighting its overconsumption and the excessive amounts incorporated in many processed foods, nutritionists say. Anyone serious about following the recommendation that people limit calories from added sugars to just 10 percent of their total daily intake needs to pay close attention to the fine print on boxes and cans at the grocery store, they say.
“If you’re on a typical 2,000 calorie diet and are going to limit added sugar to just 10 percent of your total calories, you’ve really got to start reading labels,” said Whitney Bundy, regional director of food and nutrition for the East Region of Hartford HealthCare, which includes The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich.
For an average-sized adult, the guidelines recommend no more than 50 grams (about 200 calories) of added sugar daily. That’s about 10 teaspoons. According to the website CalorieKing, most Americans consume three to four times that amount daily. In the new guidelines, the USDA characterizes poor Americans’ diets, including excessive consumption of sugar, saturated fats and sodium, as a major public health problem:
“About half of all American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and overweight and obesity,” the report states.
One of the first steps people should take to reduce sugar consumption, Smith said, is to cut out sodas and other sweetened beverages. Just one bottle of Coke, Gatorade or a Frappuccino, for example, can contain more than the recommended daily allotment.
“It’s just liquid candy,” she said.
Diet versions of these drinks, she believes, aren’t a good substitute, because they aren’t satisfying and may give people the erroneous notion that they can consume more calories elsewhere. Water, low-fat milk or coffee or tea with one teaspoon or less of sugar are better alternatives.
“I recommend people stick to the real thing,” she said. “And just making small changes can make a difference. Moderation is the key.”
She also advocates that people follow the “5-5-5 rule” when choosing between-meal snacks.
“If it has less than five grams of sugar, and more than five grams of protein and more than five grams of fiber, it’s a healthy snack,” she said.
Bundy noted that the guidelines don’t say all sugar needs to be eliminated from the diet. People can still enjoy birthday cakes and cookies – just not every day, and in limited amounts. And forbidding all sweets, she added, could simply backfire for those trying to change old habits and improve their diet.
“People still need to live and enjoy their life,” she said. “Giving up all sugar is a hard thing. But the guidelines are a goal people can try to work towards. They may not be able to get there right away. They can start by just asking themselves what types of things they would find the easiest to give up.”
If people have a favorite item like single-serving fruit-flavored yogurt, Bundy recommends they look for a type with the lowest amount of sugar to replace their regular brand.
“Some types of yogurt, especially the ones for kids, have a lot of added sugar,” she said. Low-fat plain Greek yogurt with fresh fruit added is the best alternative, she said, supplying extra protein, calcium and no added sugar.
Breakfast, the nutritionists said, is often the meal most overloaded with sugar. Even purportedly healthy, high-fiber, whole grain cereals can be laden with sugar, and breakfast bars and breakfast pastries aren’t any better.
“Breakfast is the toughest meal, because people are often in a rush and are looking for something quick,” Smith said. “I typically tell people just to stay away from cereals.”
She prefers that breakfast be rich in protein. Eggs or low or no-sugar yogurt with fresh fruit are good choices, she said.
For a quick but healthy breakfast, Bundy suggested a banana or apple with a glass of skim or low-fat milk or cheese chunks.
“And planning meals and portion control is important,” she said.
How much sugar?
The new 2015 USDA nutrition guidelines can be found at: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/