You’re not alone when it comes to the struggle to eat less sugar.
Healthline asked 3,223 Americans from across the country about their sugar consumption habits and awareness about added sugar in food.* More than half of respondents (62 percent) are concerned about the impact of sugar and how it affects their waistline, and 40 percent of respondents are likely to feel guiltier about eating too much sugar versus carbohydrates (22 percent) or fat (18 percent). One-third of those surveyed want to take action to reduce their sugar intake, and 1 in 10 (10 percent) have broken up with sugar. Surprisingly, 2 in 3 guess wrong on which popular food items contain more sugar. People are three times more likely to choose sweetened packaged cereal over the trendy “avo toast” (maybe it’s not as trendy as we thought).
Breaking up is hard to do
Sure, we know sugar is bad and even feel guilty about eating too much of it, but our daily cravings may be winning out over this knowledge. Although 86 percent of survey respondents believe they’re knowledgeable about the negative impact of sugar on health, 40 percent are still eating too much — and are feeling guilty about it. And when it comes to the health of our loved ones, 65 percent think a friend or family member could be addicted to sugar.
The Healthline survey showed that nearly half (45 percent) of people are surprised to learn that sugar has the same addictive characteristics as heroin, cocaine, meth, and nicotine. Considering that the majority of respondents to the survey were Healthline.com newsletter subscribers, who skew toward being more health-savvy, this survey result is even more astounding.*
Research has shown that the brain treats sugar in much the same way as other addictive drugs: We crave more and more to get the same euphoria. In popular and social media, it’s common to see authors on the topic refer to themselves as “sugar junkies” much the same way people refer to other addictions. Yikes!
Moreover, excessive sugar intake may play a role in reducing the brain’s natural response to stress. Flipping out over a work deadline? Reaching for a sugar-filled fix actually could be masking the body’s fight-or-flight response. Experimental research conducted in 2014 at the University of California, Davis revealed that sugar, not aspartame, blocked the stress hormone cortisol from being released. When breaking up with sugar, we need to watch out for both our emotional and social triggers. Experts advise that being more mindful of our emotions, including stress, will make it easier to curb behavior.
Know the numbers: Sugar is good ‘4’ nothing
Consumers aren’t aware of the sugar content in some of the most common, popular food items, especially products associated with healthy eating claims, such as flavored yogurt, granola, and energy bars. About half (49 percent) of respondents say it’s hard to know how much sugar they are eating and over 1 in 3 (38 percent) don’t trust food labels. Most (70 percent) don’t know what a gram of sugar is equivalent to in teaspoons or calories, and among the 30 percent who think they know the measurement, only half are able to correctly answer that 1 teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams (or 16 calories) of sugar.
The American Heart Association’s recommended intake of added sugars is no more than 36 grams, 9 teaspoons, or 150 calories a day for men, and 24 grams, 6 teaspoons, or 100 calories a day for women.
What’s a good trick to remembering this mathematical problem? Know your times tables for four: 36 grams divided by 4 grams equals 9 teaspoons. And 24 grams divided by 4 grams equals 6 teaspoons. Repeat it again: 4 grams equals 1 teaspoon. Certainly not tattoo-worthy, but 4 is an important number to remember when trying to keep track of daily intake when reading food labels.
If you eat one serving of Stonyfield Organic Smooth & Creamy Lowfat Strawberry yogurt (20 grams of sugar) and one serving of Bear Naked Chocolate Elation Granola (7 grams of sugar), you’ve already eaten 27 grams of sugar before heading to work or school. If you’re a woman, you’ve just exceeded your daily recommended limit for added sugar in your food. If you’re a man, lucky you, you’ve got a few grams left for the rest of the day. Yet our survey revealed that only 5 percent thought breakfast was the biggest issue when it comes to avoiding sugar.
How much sugar? New nutrition facts labels
New nutrition facts labels are set to launch July 26, 2018. The hope is that these new labels will more clearly reveal to consumers how much total and added sugar is in our packaged foods. That’s promising because right now, according to our survey, most people don’t know how to read food labels as it relates to their overall health.
Many of us purchase foods on the go and have even less time to study or decipher labels. But even with the new nutrition facts labeling, we’re still going to have to do the math because sugar is listed in grams. Whether you’re good at math or not, we’re still eating too much sugar and may not know it. “Some estimates put the average adult intake at close to 130 pounds of sugar a year — an astonishing amount of any substance, much less one with such disastrous health implications,” wrote Dr. Frank Lipman, founder and director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City.
Sugar IQ fail
Our survey found that while at least one-third check sugar in foods typically associated with high-sugar content, such as cookies or frozen desserts, respondents are less likely to check hidden sugars in dressings, sauces, or condiments. The survey showed that 2 in 3 guess wrong on which popular food items contain more sugar. Most people (67 percent) assumed a Starbucks Chocolate Croissant has more sugar than a Dannon Strawberry Yogurt. The yogurt actually has 24 grams of sugar compared to 10 grams found in the chocolate croissant.
Americans want to eat less sugar but are having difficulties when it comes to identifying which foods pose the biggest threats to surpassing the total recommended daily consumption.
Cases in point:
- Beware of sugar hiding behind other messaging: YoBaby Yogurt, an organic yogurt for babies 6 months to 2 years, has 9 grams of sugar in each serving (over 2 teaspoons). What’s shocking is that it’s also the “#1 Pediatrician Recommended” brand.
- It’s not just sweet things: A Domino’s hand-tossed small cheese pizza with marinara sauce has about 9 grams of sugar.
- Be careful of beverages: One can (or 11 fluid ounces) of Coco Libre Organic Coconut Water has 20 grams of sugar.
The good news
The key to a happy and healthy body is giving your body what it needs. Replacing processed sugars with more healthful natural sources to satiate and replace physical cravings is the first step, along with finding ways to reduce our emotional triggers. Find more help in Healthline’s The Practical 12-Step Guide to Breaking up with Sugar.
“Our survey told us that we really need to do more for our millions of monthly visitors,” said David Kopp, Healthline’s CEO. “Our findings pointed to simple education about sugar as the major missing ingredient for people who already want to limit their sugar. When I broke up with sugar, the first few days were hard, but it ended up being easier and far more rewarding than I expected.”
“We lead with empathy first and foremost,” said Tracy Stickler, editor in chief. “Whether it’s a separation or a total divorce from sugar, we need practical help. With all the recent press about the politics of sugar and who is to blame, we decided the time was now to take the issues from the lobbying table to the dinner table along with trusted advice from experts and real life success stories.”
*The Healthline surveys were conducted September 22 to October 5, 2016 among a national sample of 2,723 Healthline visitors and a national sample of 500 online consumers. Findings are statistically significant at a 95 percent confidence level, with +/- 5 percent margin of error.