How to help your clients break up with added sugar
Consuming excess amounts of added sugar can negatively impact your nutrition client’s health, but with so much misinformation, how can you help them sort through the noise to identify hidden sources? Here’s how you can help your clients break up with refined sugar.
Whether it’s fruit, pasta, cereal, salsa, or ice cream, sugar can be found in almost everything you eat. Even though this sweetener is prevalent in many foods and beverages, your clients may not have thought twice about how this can affect their health.
While the occasional treat isn’t cause for concern, research has shown that consuming excessive amounts of added sugar is correlated with an increased risk of chronic disease, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, dementia, heart disease, and certain cancers .
As a nutrition professional, you can help educate your clients on the harmful effects of excess sugar consumption, while also explaining ways to identify hidden sugar in foods. But before we explore how to help your clients break up with refined sugar, let’s understand the difference between natural and added sugar and why high amounts can be harmful to health.
Natural sugar vs. added sugar
Contrary to popular belief, not all sugar is created equal. Let’s briefly break down the difference between natural and refined sugar so you can help your clients distinguish between the two.
- Natural sugar: Natural sugars are found in fruit (fructose), vegetables, grains, and dairy products (lactose), and contain fiber and protein to slow digestion and provide a steady supply of energy to your cells. Additionally, natural sugars have vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are needed for energy metabolism, immune function, cell health, and more.
- Refined (or added) sugar: Refined sugar is typically found as sucrose (a combination of glucose and fructose) and is processed from cane or beets, which your body rapidly breaks down. This causes insulin and blood sugar levels to spike, and since refined sugars lack vitamins and minerals, diets high in added sugars can negatively impact your health and increase the risk of chronic disease [5,6]. Some examples of refined sugars include candy, sweetened beverages, processed foods, fruit juice concentrate, pastries, and cookies.
Added sugar guidelines
Since there is little to no nutritional value in refined sugars, the American Heart Association recommends limiting this intake to no more than 6% of calories per day . Here’s a breakdown of what that looks like.
- Men: No more than 150 calories per day (36 grams or 9 teaspoons)
- Women and children aged 2+: No more than 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons)
- Children under 2: Added sugar is not recommended
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Risks of high sugar diets
Excess refined sugar consumption can wreak havoc on your health, and since the average American consumes 270 calories (or 17 teaspoons) of sugar per day, the health consequences can be staggering . Here’s what science has to say about the risk of high sugar diets.
- Weight gain and obesity. Studies have found that high sugar intake disrupts leptin production, which can increase hunger cues and contribute to weight gain [1,2].
- Increased risk of heart disease. Research indicates that this type of diet can raise blood sugar levels, inflammation, and blood pressure, all of which are biomarkers for heart disease .
- Increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Emerging evidence suggests that excess sugar consumption promotes inflammation, localized insulin resistance, and abnormal insulin production, all of which are associated with type 2 diabetes .
- Poor mental health. High sugar diets have been associated with overall cognitive decline, impaired memory, and an increased risk of dementia. This is further backed by science, as research shows that people who consume large amounts of added sugar are more likely to develop depression .
How to identify added sugar
Unfortunately, refined sugar is prevalent in many foods, but thanks to clever marketing tactics, it can be difficult to identify them. Here are some ways in which you can help your clients look out for hidden sugars to make more informed food choices.
1. Understand different names for sugar
Many food companies will often use sugars with names that are not easily recognizable. Here is a quick list of some sugars with different names you can inform your client to look out for:
- High fructose corn syrup
- Barley malt
- Crystalline fructose
- Corn sweetener
- Organic raw sugar
- Evaporated cane juice
- Agave nectar
- Ethyl maltol
- Fruit juice concentrate
2. Look at the food label
Adding sugar to foods is a way for manufacturers to enhance flavor, texture, color, and extend the shelf-life; in fact, this has become so common that it's estimated that 75% of packaged foods contain added sweeteners . This includes unexpected items such as yogurt, sauces, cereals, drinks, dips, salsa, soups, and canned items.
However, the FDA has made changes to the nutrition facts label to include added sugars so this is easier to spot . You can show your clients where to find this on the nutrition label, as well as what to look for in the ingredient list while food shopping, so they can make more informed decisions.
3. Check the portion size
Food manufacturers will often alter the portion size on a food label to make it look like a different amount of sugar is being consumed. For instance, a bottle of soda may seem like one serving, but the nutrition label is broken up into two servings which can make the amount of sugar look lower than it really is.
To help your clients understand how much sugar they consume, encourage them to look at the nutrition label so they can understand where their sugar intake comes from.
4 ways to help your clients break up with sugar
While your clients may find it challenging at first to reduce their sugar intake, it will get easier for them over time. Here are some ways you can help them break up with it.
- Include more fruits. You can swap sugar-laden options and add more fruits to your client’s meal plan with smoothies, snacks, or to their morning cereal. This will not only cut back on their sugar intake, but it will provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are important for health.
Tip: Learn more about other ways to create a better meal plan for your clients here.
- Be consistent. Small changes quickly add up over time, so encourage your clients to cut back on the sugar they add to everyday food items (like coffee) and slowly continue to reduce the amount gradually.
- Limit sugary beverages. Whether it’s juices, energy drinks, or chocolate milk, sugar can be found in a variety of beverages, so you can encourage your clients to limit their intake and opt for water instead. However, if they are looking for something else to drink, fruit-infused water might be a good option.
- Go for whole foods. Vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are minimally processed foods and are free of additives and refined sugar. By adding these items to your client’s meal plan, it can enhance satiety and make it easier for them to cut back on other sugary foods.
A diet high in refined sugar can negatively impact your client’s health, so as a nutrition professional, you can help your clients break up with added sugar by understanding the difference between natural and refined sugar, as well as having them identify hidden sources and offering simple food swaps.
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- Stanhope K. L. (2016). Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Critical reviews in clinical laboratory sciences, 53(1), 52–67.
- DiNicolantonio, J. J., & Berger, A. (2016). Added sugars drive nutrient and energy deficit in obesity: a new paradigm. Open heart, 3(2), e000469.
- Bray G. A. (2013). Energy and fructose from beverages sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup pose a health risk for some people. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 4(2), 220–225.
- Guo, X., Park, Y., Freedman, N. D., Sinha, R., Hollenbeck, A. R., Blair, A., & Chen, H. (2014). Sweetened beverages, coffee, and tea and depression risk among older US adults. PloS one, 9(4), e94715.
- Paglia L. (2019). The sweet danger of added sugars. European journal of paediatric dentistry, 20(2), 89.
- Rippe, J., & Angelopoulos, T. (2016). Relationship between added sugars consumption and chronic disease risk factors: Current understanding. Nutrients, 8(11), 697.
- Added sugars. http://www.heart.org. (2021, November 2). Retrieved June 3, 2022.
- Cut down on added sugars - health. (n.d.). Retrieved June 3, 2022, from https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/DGA_Cut-Down-On-Added-Sugars.pdf
- Ng, S. W., Slining, M. M., & Popkin, B. M. (2012). Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112(11).
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Changes to the nutrition facts label. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved June 3, 2022.