If you own a sugar bowl and a saltshaker, you may be wondering if you should ever fill them again. The panelists crafting the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasized that we’re consuming much more sugar and salt than is healthy for us and have advised us to pare our intakes of both considerably. That said, they have acknowledged that the sugar bowl and saltshaker aren’t the principal villains at the dining table. About 80% of the sugar and salt we eat is added to packaged and commercially prepared foods.
What are added sugars?
Sugar, in the form of glucose, supplies the body with energy. However, we don’t need to eat any sugar, because our bodies can convert carbohydrates—and even fat and protein, if necessary—to glucose. Although fruits, vegetables, and dairy naturally contain some sugars, those sugars are “packaged” with vitamins, minerals, and fiber and are released slowly into the blood. The phrase “added sugars” was adopted by the USDA in 2000 to distinguish sugars put in during processing, in preparation, and at the table. Added sugars insert “empty calories” into a food or beverage because they aren’t associated with any other nutrients.
The average American consumes more than 350 calories a day from added sugars, often in sweetened beverages and breakfast cereals, but also in a wide array of other foods, from flavored yogurt to ketchup. “The science is very clear that added sugars carry a lot of health risks. Many studies have shown that added sugars are associated with an increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and even heart disease,” says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The U.S. guidelines advise getting less than 10% of calories from added sugars—fewer than 40 grams daily for a woman eating 1,600 calories a day. The American Heart Association favors cutting added sugar consumption even more—to 24 grams a day for women.
Read labels carefully
Many processed and packaged foods contain added sugars. In addition to cereals, breads, crackers, and cookies, these include salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, soups, condiments, and more. Manufacturers often use several different types of sugars, so look in ingredient lists not just for sugar, but also for syrups and words ending in “ose,” like sucrose, fructose, and maltose.
You won’t have to do this too much longer. The FDA has called for new food labeling that includes “added sugars” in the Nutrition Facts box. The rule will go into effect July 26, 2018.
Reducing your sugar intake
Although beverages are the most important source of added sugars, they aren’t the only ones. There are additional ways to reduce your intake of added sugars, and it doesn’t have to mean giving up desserts. Here are several ideas for reducing the amount of sugar in your diet, targeting sugary drinks just as a first step:
Give your taste buds time to adjust. If you’re in the habit of having two spoonful’s of sugar in your coffee or tea, for instance, start by going to one-and-a-half for a week, then down to one. If sodas are part of your regular routine, cut your consumption by one a week, then two.
Adapt your recipes. You can make your favorite recipes less sugary by reducing a little bit at a time—try using one-quarter less sugar than the recipe calls for, then one-third—right up until you notice the difference. You may come to prefer the less-sweet variation.
Reach for fruit rather than juice. Squeezing fruit breaks down the cells and releases sugar into the juice, so that it enters the bloodstream more rapidly. Moreover, a glass of juice is usually the caloric equivalent of three whole fruits. Instead of drinking fruit juice, eat a piece of fresh fruit. You can make fruit drinkable and still preserve its fiber by blending it with almond milk or low-fat yogurt in a smoothie. If you just can’t give up juice, make it 100% fruit juice that is not sweetened and limit the amount to a 4-ounce glass.
Check your cereal box. If you enjoy cold cereal or instant oatmeal for breakfast, look at the labels and choose one with minimal added sugar. It’s also worth noting that cereals made with refined grains are quickly broken down into sugars in the body. To wean yourself off your favorite cereal, try combining it with a whole-grain, high-fiber cereal, and add fruit.
What about salt?
Salt is a somewhat different matter. Salt (sodium chloride) is the largest supplier of sodium in the diet. Sodium has many important biological functions—transmitting nerve impulses, contracting and relaxing muscle fibers, and maintaining proper fluid balance. But Americans get much more than they need—3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, on average.
In healthy people, the kidneys regulate the body’s sodium level by getting rid of any excess. But if there’s too much sodium in the bloodstream, the kidneys may not be able to keep up. Then excess sodium in the blood pulls out water from the cells into the bloodstream. As the heart works harder to pump the extra volume of blood through the arteries, blood pressure rises. By age 65, more than half of Americans have high blood pressure; after age 75, three-quarters have it. People with high blood pressure are more prone to having a stroke or heart attack or developing heart failure or kidney failure.
The dietary guidelines recommend limiting daily sodium intake to 2,300 mg a day—the amount contained in a teaspoon of salt. The American Heart Association suggests that people 50 or older limit their daily sodium intake to 1,500 mg a day.
Cutting down on salt
Even if you ban salt from your table, it is still easy to exceed the sodium limit. To avoid doing so, try the following:
Eat mostly fresh foods. Most of the sodium we eat comes from restaurant meals and processed foods, including canned vegetables and soups, pasta sauces, frozen entrées, lunch meats, and snack foods. If you start with unsalted, fresh foods and prepare them yourself, you can exercise better control over your sodium intake.
Take care with condiments. Sodium is found in many condiments besides ordinary table salt—including soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salad dressings, ketchup, seasoned salts, pickles, and olives. Baking soda, baking powder, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) also contain sodium.
Read the labels. The Nutrition Facts label on packaged food lists milligrams of sodium per serving, so it’s important to note how many servings the container holds. The percent daily value is based on 2,300 mg, so if your own daily sodium limit is lower, the amount of sodium in a serving is actually a higher percentage than the label indicates. Be aware that some over-the-counter drugs also contain sodium.
Speak up. When dining out, ask to have your food prepared with less salt. You can also ask for a lemon or lime wedge to add more flavor to your food.
Spice it up. Cut back on salt by using more herbs and spices like basil, coriander, cumin, cayenne, powdered mustard, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and turmeric. You might try making your own blends of spices and herbs to use along with lemon or lime juice or flavored vinegars.
Seek out specialty salts. Some kosher and gourmet salts contain less sodium than standard iodized table salt; check the Nutrition Facts label to make sure.
The good news
You have a powerful ally in the quest to cut down on sugar and salt—flavor. While basic tastes—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (a savory quality often associated with meat or mushrooms)—result from activating specific taste buds, flavors combine messages from several types of taste buds and from food scents. As you begin to add a greater variety of herbs and spices to your cooking and to try new fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, you may find that you no longer crave sugary or salty foods. In fact, you may find that foods you once thought you couldn’t live without seem too sweet, too salty, or even less interesting.