A new dietary sugar intake study from the University of Utah shows what happens when mice eat the kind of diet many Americans now eat: 25% of total calories in added sugars and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The results were chilling: females died at twice the rate of controls, while males lost fertility and territorial instinct. And as the researchers pointed out when the corn and sugar associations tried to downplay the significance and shuffle blame, city mice tend to eat what humans near them eat. Yeah.
So of course, as the mother of a diabetic kid with a known and prominent sweet tooth (that goes for both of us, but we also love vegetables, or we’d never survive), I have to ask, how do you keep your added sugar calories under maybe 13% instead of 25%?
I don’t have a simple answer to this, particularly as I’ve discovered that most of my friends don’t cook anymore, if they ever did. Most of them think making soup means opening a can and dinner means ordering pizza. Snack, and occasionally breakfast too, is a power bar (shudder). All vegetables are precut, and many die in the fridge of sad neglect. They have good intentions; Whole Foods rubs its hands with glee when they see them wander in.
And although they’re smart, they have a very hard time wrapping their heads around the differences between added sugar, “naturally”-sourced or “unprocessed” brown sugar, sugars naturally present in whole unprocessed foods…agave syrup, power bars, “sugar-free” cookies…blah blah blah…all the gimmicks, in other words.
They don’t really understand the noncommercial measure that counts most for actual diabetics: total grams of carbohydrate in the current meal. Because that’s what you have to calculate and dose insulin for. Not just the sugars.
But even then, you don’t calculate for the whole day’s eating and just give one big dose based on a guess of what you might eat later. You calculate meal by meal and give a dose of short-acting insulin for that meal.
Calculating added sugar calories against total calories in a day is really difficult when you’re the mouse, so to speak. That’s the way nutrition researchers think about measuring the effects of your diet. It’s not the way people think as they’re getting ready to eat.
Especially if you’re eating out or you don’t have every food label right in front of you or you don’t walk around every minute with a meticulous food diary. It’s like doing taxes when all you want to do is choose and eat a decent lunch.
WHAT DOES WORK?
I’d say, thinking like a diabetic. Or rather, in this case, like a diabetic’s mom.
- First, definitely go meal-by-meal. Be sane.
- Second, in any given meal–or snack–estimate the sugar grams as a fraction of the total carb grams, not the total calories, which can come from fat as well as carb. Too confusing.
- Third, just count all the sweet stuff together. The whole idea of comparing added sugar vs. total consumed sugar is a pain in the tush to figure out. Once it’s in your system, it’s all sugar, and popular New Age-y fantasies about agave syrup and Hawaiian brown sugar and palm sugar being “natural” and “healthier” tend to fog things even worse.
- Count fresh fruit, plain milk and yogurt–-these are also in the form of sugar, not starch–and just figure that fresh fruit, milk and yogurt are the best choices (duh) per serving because they’re less concentrated in sugars than candy, pies, cakes, cookies, snack bars, power bars and …. syrup.
- And then really look at the nutrition labels for anything packaged or processed. Including vegetables. If nothing else, it’ll be obvious why I rant against carrot juice instead of whole carrots, for example…
The first step for any of this, though is to know how much carb you’re actually eating.
Step 0. Know thou thy carbs.
For total carb estimates, get a decent, commonsense guide to how much carb is actually in the foods you eat and learn what quantity constitutes a standard serving “exchange” (defined for diabetics as 15 grams of carb). Go to the Carb Counts page on this site for a basic rule-of-thumb guide, but also check out the American Dietetic Association guide–it’s cheap, and it’s fairly simple to learn what’s in the categories of foods you typically eat.
The sugar content–well, ideally, you have a nutrition label in front of you or the USDA nutrition database to look it all up in, but in practice, at least if you’re not actually diabetic and calculating within a couple of grams to get the right insulin dose, you can just cheat and look at the portions.
HOW TO CHEAT:
1. Ask yourself, IS IT SWEET? You could take the time and look it up meticulously, but generally, if it’s sweet, it’s got sugar. (Duh.) Though of course you now know that fruit, milk and plain yogurt are also in the sugar category.
2. Then ask yourself, HOW SWEET IS IT? Generally, the sweeter an item or the more syrup-laden, the more sugar it has as a proportion of its total carb. (double-duh)
3. How much of the meal is the sweet food? Half? A quarter? Eyeball it and make it a good bit less than half of the volume of all the food, and less than half the volume of nonsweet carb-containing foods (starchy vegetables, pastas and grains, beans, bread…) NOTE: For very sweet or dense foods like syrup, candy, frosting, power bars or granola, it could look like a small amount of food and just be packed with sugar grams. Hence Rule #2. Guesstimate accordingly.
OK? Now, how do you get the sugars down as a percentage of total carb per meal? Because that’s the goal.
1. Budget your carb grams per meal
Notice I don’t say “don’t eat any carb” or “don’t eat any sugar.” People who insist they’re eating to lower their blood sugar by “not eating any carb” or “eating as little as possible” but then head for the bagels, the sugar-free cookies and candies, and the “diet” jams, are being vague and they’re also fooling themselves about what counts as carbohydrates. Because “no carb” and “as little as possible” are really not numbers, they’re just empty slogans. And it’s really hard to achieve a literal no-carb diet without passing out, looking skeletal and damaging your organs. Been there, not fun.
If instead you budget your total carb grams per meal based on a standard recommended daily intake for healthy, normal-weight people and then figure out how much carb-containing food will supply that amount, you have the beginnings of an actual plan. You can adjust up or down a bit if you’re trying to lose weight or gain it, and you can keep your sweet tooth in some kind of proportion to the total because you know approximately what the total is.
2. How much total carb do you aim for?
About 180-200 grams per day is a standard kind of carb intake for anyone other than infants and fast-growing teenagers (and, I suppose, for professional-grade athletes), so for most people who are maintaining their current weight, 60 grams of total carb per meal might be a good way to think about it. Or 45 for a meal, 15 for a snack, if you split it up that way (note, don’t eat 10 snacks a day, it’s repulsive!)
3. How much sugar do you aim for?
How much sugar in grams is 25% of daily calories, anyway? It’s actually a LOT of sugar. Let’s say you eat a (moderate, now-uncommon) 2000-calorie diet on average. Twenty-five percent of that is 500 calories–divide by 4 calories per gram of sugar and it’s 125 grams–about 10 tablespoons or more than half a cup. Ouch! 125 grams is more than half of the 180-200 average target for daily total carb grams. Not good.
125 grams is like maybe a third of a double-crust fruit pie (I have pie on the brain today). Six or so scoops of ice cream. Four Snickers-type candy bars. Who knows how much soda. But you get the idea. It’s a lot. And very spiky for blood glucose levels. Even if you know you eat more than 2000 calories a day, you know perfectly well that 125 grams of sugar a day is a bad, bad idea no matter how much more your total carb intake is.
Half of that–13%, more or less, of total calories, is about 60 grams of sugar (added and otherwise) or about 1/3 of the target total carb grams—so, 20 grams max per meal. That’s actually pretty doable.
It’s still 4 tablespoons of sugar in a day, which by most counts is more than plenty. But it could be 4 medium pieces of fruit, or three fruits and a glass of milk or yogurt, etc…which would be a lot better healthwise than sodas and candy bars. You could even have a small scoop of modestly carbed and preferably low-fat ice cream as one of the 15-gram servings once in a while. Just not with two or three servings of pie and a Snickers bar too.
So anyway…aim for grams of sugar, whether added or naturally occurring, to be definitely under half, preferably a third or less, of the total carb grams for most meals.
And you want any snacks to be planned, substantive, nonaddictive and limited in carb. Vegetables. Nuts. Low-fat cheese. A small piece of fruit rather than a soda or bag of cookies. A piece of pita with hummus rather than chips or sweets or–worst of worst sugar-dense foods–vending machine candy bars. They’re about 90 percent carb by weight. Very very very. Save it up for Halloween.
4. Save up for the good times
Eating only a third of your carb count in sugar for the meal gets problematic when you figure in special desserts and holidays. A modest slice of pie or cake about 1-2 inches wide at the rim can contain 40 or more grams of total carb, much of which is necessarily sugar.
The only way to cope? Think how the dessert fits in terms of the total meal–and it’s best to eat it with a meal, rather than on its own, so that the proteins, vegetable fibers and so on from the rest of the meal can slow down the sugars in the dessert a bit. Keep your portions small for the highly sugared foods–at a certain point, more is just more, not better. Don’t just hit yourself over the head with sweet–go for desserts that are naturally a little less sweet or sugary and more sophisticated. And if you go to a party, plan a little ahead and decide how much sweet stuff you want to eat before you go. Don’t leave it till the buffet table where you and everyone else is grabbing three of everything.
Mostly–save up for the good sweets that actually taste like something. Make it special–a pair of crisp 2-inch homemade classic chocolate chip cookies (20ish grams), not the generic 5-inch, syrup-laden soft cookie (about 60 grams, a whole meal’s worth of carb just for the cookie!) that comes unbidden with your takeout tuna sandwich at TGI Fridays or stir-fry at Pei Wei. It’s really not delicious enough to eat, the dough is sickly sweet, the chips aren’t properly chocolate and it’s really greasy. Plus it bends. Ick!
You deserve better than that.