Is Sugar Really All That Bad For You?

Sugar: Many health devotees shudder at the very word. The anti-fat hysteria of recent decades seems to have given way to a crusade against the sweet stuff—but is all sugar really all that bad?

“We always seem to need to pick on some sort of nutrient,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., creator of Better Than Dieting and author of Read It Before You Eat It. “Fat has fallen back in favor after recent studies have shown saturated fat may not be as bad as we originally thought—not that it’s good for you.” So now that fat’s been released from exile, it’s sugar’s turn to be demonized.

First, let’s clear up one important point: Sugar is our body’s primary energy source, so we need some sugar in our diets to function.

When you eat sugar, it enters your bloodstream and causes what we know as a ‘blood sugar spike.’ From there, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which helps remove the sugar (a.k.a. glucose) from your blood so your body can store it in your liver, muscles, or fat, or use it, according to the University of California San Francisco.

So Why All The Bad Press?

It’s when you consume too much sugar that means trouble for your body. Sugar in excess can cause insulin resistance, a state in which your blood sugar stops responding as strongly to insulin. Your insulin production itself may also take a hit, leaving you with excess glucose in your bloodstream and often leading to weight gain and type 2 diabetes, says Taub-Dix. (Factors like a sedentary lifestyle and genetics can also contribute to your risk.)

Not only does a diabetes diagnosis mean more trips to the doc and possible medication, it also puts you at an increased risk for heart disease, liver disease, and stroke.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting added or natural sugars to 10 percent of your daily calories at most, though less than five percent is ideal. In a typical 2,000-calorie diet, five percent of calories from sugar translates to 25 grams of it per day.

Most of us, though, consume more than three times the recommended amount. The average American takes in 82 grams of sugar—that’s 19.5 teaspoons —every day, according to the CDC. That adds up to an average of 66 pounds of added sugar each year, according to the USDA. Yikes.

Our collective sugar habit is clearly out of control—so where did we go wrong?  “When the fat-free craze hit [in the ’80s], a lot more sugar was added to food products to maintain flavor and taste,” says Taub-Dix. Take those addictive Snackwell cookies, or many salad dressings, for example. It’s not a coincidence that health concerns like diabetes and obesity have been on the rise.

Related: Try a natural sugar alternative like stevia in your coffee, baked goods, and more.

Are You Eating Too Much Sugar?

Even if you think you’re steering clear of it, many surprising foods contain more sugar than you may realize. Unexpected sources include ketchup, frozen meals, and fruit juices. Sugar may appear on a food label as ‘glucose’ (or anything ending in ‘-ose,’ really), cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, rice syrup, organic cane sugar, or turbinado sugar, among other aliases. “You have to learn what these ingredients really are and make food decisions carefully from there,” says Taub-Dix.

To clean up your intake, focus on getting the sugar in your diet from natural sources like yogurt, milk, and fruit. “One cup of milk contains 12 grams of sugar, but it also contains nine other essential nutrients,” says Taub-Dix. A handful of jelly beans may have the same amount of sugar but offer zero other nutritional value, so it’s important to look at the full nutritional profile of the food, says Taub-Dix. Sure, a piece of fruit may contain sugar, but it also packs vitamins and fiber.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to swear off any packaged food that includes some form of sugar. “Just because a food contains added sugar doesn’t automatically make it bad for you,” says Taub-Dix. “Check how many grams of sugar it contains and where on the ingredient list ‘sugar’ appears—is it the first ingredient or the tenth?” (The higher the better.) The key here is moderation.

Making smarter carb choices can also help your body maintain insulin function and stable blood sugar levels. Complex carbs, like oatmeal and brown rice, are digested and absorbed more slowly than simple carbs, like white bread or soda, says Taub-Dix. (We have the fiber in complex carbs to thank for this!) “Whole grains are your best source of energy,” says Taub-Dix. “They’ll make you feel fuller and more satisfied than simple carbs because they stay in your system longer.”

Get Your Sugar In Check

If you’re concerned about your sugar habits, try tracking your grub with an app like MyFitnessPal to see how much sugar you consume each day. If you’re way over the WHO’s recommended 25 grams, it’s time to cut down.

An obvious indicator that you’re eating too much sugar is weight gain, says Taub-Dix. Another hint? Feeling like you’re constantly riding an energy rollercoaster. “Sugar can give you that initial burst but then end up zapping your energy later on,” she says. If you’re wired right after breakfast but feel like face-planting on your desk by 11:00 a.m., consider it a sign.

The best way to cut down on sugar is to slowly wean yourself off—because, yeah, it really is addictive. A study published in Obesity, for example, found that soda consumption triggered the reward-processing region of the brain in adolescents—the same region triggered by addictive substances and drugs.

With a couple of tricks up your sleeve, the withdrawal can be made less painful. For instance, if you like your yogurt sweet, mix a few spoonfuls of a sweetened variety into a plain one. You can also use unsweetened applesauce, mashed banana, or berries. Soda and juice lovers: Try mixing sparkling water or plain H20 into your go-to beverage, using slightly more water and slightly less soda or juice over time, until you can sip on the plain stuff, Taub-Dix adds.

Related: We’re personally hooked on La Croix’s grapefruit sparkling water.