A sweet change: Cutting back on added sugars

July 03, 2024

By Dr. Graham A. Colditz, Siteman Cancer Center

You often wouldn't know it from what we see on TV and social media, but the basics of a healthy lifestyle can be pretty straightforward. Try to walk or do other physical activities, eat a healthy diet of mostly plant-based foods, limit alcohol and, of course, don't smoke.

As we know though, putting these into practice can be less straightforward, with all that we have going on in our lives. But we should be encouraged that taking even small, positive steps can have real benefit to our health and wellness -- and in many ways.

One smaller change most of us can work toward is reducing added sugars we regularly eat and drink.

"Eating foods containing lots of added sugar can lead to weight gain and cause chronic inflammation, both of which can increase the risk of many chronic diseases, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer," said Yikyung Park, a professor in the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "Also, foods high in added sugar tend to be high in calories but have few other nutrients that help our body function properly."

These sugars are added when a food is prepared or processed and also include sugars in food such as honey, molasses and syrup.

It's recommended that we get less than 10% of our daily calories from added sugars. For someone needing 2,000 calories a day, that means consuming fewer than 200 calories, or 50 grams, a day of added sugar.

Most of us consume more than that. And the leading contributor to added sugar consumption? Sugary drinks, like soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit punch and many types of sweet coffee drinks. Just one 12-ounce can of soda has 39 grams of added sugar, nearly the 50-gram daily limit for many people. A 16.9-ounce bottle of soda moves past the limit, with 55 grams all by itself.

Desserts, pastries and candy can also have a lot of added sugar. And they can hide in good amounts in some foods we may not always think of as high in sugar, Park added. "This can include breakfast cereals, fruit-flavored low-fat yogurt and many other low-fat foods and barbecue and many other sauces, which have other flavors that mask the sweetness."

Use food labels as your guide to reducing added sugars, and be aware that labels often show the amount of sugar in just one serving. We might normally eat more than one serving, increasing our intake of added sugar even more.

And as with most healthy behaviors, we don't need to make a sudden, major change to see benefit. It's something we can slowly work toward.

"Instead of cutting all sugars at once, try to gradually lower sugar consumption over weeks or months," Park said. "Focusing on foods you eat daily or frequently can be helpful. For example, try one less teaspoon of sugar in your coffee for several weeks, and then reduce by another teaspoon after that. If you drink sugary drinks, take the same approach, slowly cutting back the number you drink."

Even for those of us with a sweet tooth, it can be pretty simple to cut back on added sugar, and in a way we might not even notice. Give it a try. It's well worth the effort.

It's your health. Take control.

Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention and the creator of the free prevention tool, Your Disease Risk.