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Providence Health & Services
Swedish Health System | Seattle, WA
Kadlec Regional Medical Center | Richland, WA
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Natural sugars are normal, but added sugars can cause problems. Read our blog to learn how to limit them.
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How much sugar should you have?

Terese Scollard knows why sugar is a problem for you and others, but she doesn’t want you to obsess over calories or beat yourself up for eating the occasional treat. She just wants you to choose your food wisely.

“Eating perfect is kind of crazy,” she says. “We should live our lives and not be totally focused on food all the time.”

Scollard is the clinical nutrition manager for Providence’s Oregon region. She oversees patient nutrition therapies including diets and advises others on how to serve food that is healthy. She also:

  • Loves to cook
  • Takes the long view of the social and environmental forces that have pushed so much sugar onto our plates
  • Supports new labeling rules that list added sugars, which are the kinds nutritionists advise you to limit
  • Won’t judge you on those occasions you succumb to temptation

Sugar is sweet, but …

Natural sugars, such as the kind that occur in grapes, oranges and milk, have been a component of the human diet for thousands of years. But today Americans take in considerable calories in the form of sugars added to soft drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, dairy desserts, coffee drinks and fruit drinks. These added sugars may be known as corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, malt syrup, fruit nectar, corn sweetener and other names.

Food preparers love to add sugars to their dishes because they sweeten and smooth the way food tastes, improve its texture and act as a preservative.

As sugar has been added to prepared and processed foods, we consumers have developed a preference for it. As a result, foods that used to be rare treats are now commonplace in our pantries and menu choices.

But sugars have created problems, too. For example, sugars:

  • Damage teeth
  • Provide “empty” calories, offering little nutritional value while crowding out healthier choices
  • Cause our taste buds to crave more
  • Can contribute to a host of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancers

As a result, many people have strong feelings on the subject. “People are freaking out about sugar,” Scollard acknowledges.

Regulators are requiring more information about sugars on nutrition labels, although the new labels are still not shown on all foods. The new labels break out added sugars, which is the line that nutritionists want you to notice.

Tips for avoiding too many added sugars

The government’s current dietary guidelines recommend that you consume no more than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugars. Currently, Americans consume far more than that. From ages 4 to 30, for example, the average American takes more than 14 percent of his calories from added sugars.

In other words, most of us need to cut down.

At the commonly used dietary standard of 2,000 calories per day, 10 percent of added sugars amounts to about 12 teaspoons.

“I generally say 10 because it’s a nice, round number and easy to remember,” says Scollard. “And it makes the point.”

Scollard thinks people can benefit from making some simple changes in the way they eat and drink. In some cases, people have developed bad habits, but in others, they simply don’t know how to monitor their sugar intake. She suggests you:

  • Read the label. As new nutrition labels are introduced, you can see the breakdown of “Total sugars” and “added sugars.” It’s best to limit your intake of added sugars.
  • Reduce your portions. Scollard says her household now eats on 9-inch plates, rather than the more typical 10- and 12-inch plates. The effect is to make it seem as if you’ve eaten enough when you’ve cleaned your plate. Health experts also are urging restaurants to reduce the size of the portions they serve, especially to children.
  • Don’t graze. Mealtimes used to be fixed, and finished by early evening. These days, it’s easy to snack throughout the day and evening. As a result, at the end of the day, you’ve taken in more calories and added sugars than your body needs.
  • Remove temptations. If you think you’re likely to dip into a tin of cookies, jar of jelly beans or a box of ice cream, don’t keep them around. When Scollard teaches classes, she gives her students for-credit exercises to purge their pantries or refrigerators of high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar foods. The practice often serves as a wake-up call.
  • Drink less alcohol. Many people don’t realize how much sugar is in alcoholic drinks. “If you tell me you go to happy hour after work and have a drink and snack,’ I might tell you to have a glass of wine or a light beer and very few chips,’” says Scollard.

Start with the basics of a healthy diet

To build a healthy diet from the ground up, look to the government’s dietary guidelines, suggests Scollard, who sometimes uses a plate of rubber food to demonstrate the notions of portion sizes and combinations. Eat vegetables, whole grains, fruit, fat-free or low-fat dairy, a variety of protein foods and include oils from plants, such as canola, corn, olive and safflower.

And, of course, limit your intake of saturated fats, trans fats, salt, sodium and added sugars.

The ChooseMyPlate.gov site offers guidance to people wondering about how much and what foods to prepare and eat.

“The dietary guidelines and most nutritionists just want you to buy basic foods and cook more,” Scollard says. Doing so can save money as well as reduce sugar, she added, pointing out that you can make hummus from cooked dry beans that cost a couple of dollars, instead of spending $6 or more on an 8-ounce container of ready-made hummus.

If you’re interested in getting a handle on your diet, you can make an appointment with a Providence Oregon Registered Dietitian at Providence.org/nutrition. In other regions, you can find a Providence provider here.

Resources for healthy sugar intake

Scollard is a walking, talking resource about healthy eating. She suggests reading Providence’s Ask an Expert series:

Ask an Expert: Ten Dietary Mistakes That Lead to Weight Gain »
Ask an Expert: Is Bread Bad? »
Ask an Expert: Can a Person Eat Too Much Fruit? »
Ask an Expert: Study Links Sugary Drinks and Heart Risks »

Scollard admires food writer, cooking show host and nutritionist Ellie Krieger, whose site features recipes, articles and other features, including the discussion, “Talking Sugar.”

And she thought the Parade magazine piece, “Cutting Down on Sugar: Advice from Dr. Donald Hensrud, Author of the Mayo Clinic Diet,” was useful.

People interested in getting a free digital booklet on how much sugar you should eat can download it at NutritionAction.com.

Natural sugars are normal, but added sugars can cause problems. Read our blog to learn how to limit them.