Get Smart About Sugar: The Hidden Food Item Ruining Your Health

High sugar consumption has been directly linked to obesity, high blood pressure, headaches, migraines, inflammation, cancer, IBS, hormonal imbalance, reduced fertility, tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, lowered immunity, insulin resistance, and many other health problems yet we’re still eating way too much of it. Sugar is hidden in everyday items meaning that even if you avoid sweets, you could still be putting your health at risk without realizing it.

Why We Love It

Sugar stimulates your brain’s reward system in the same way that nicotine, cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines do. Activation of the reward system in your brain prompts the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released. How is this chemical circuit similar between sugar and opioid addicted individuals? While a normal person receives a release of dopamine upon experiencing a reward, an addicted individual floods their brain with dopamine out of excitement in anticipation for their reward. Dopamine flooding the brain like this in addicts dulls it's later effects when the reward is actually received via down-regulation of dopamine receptors. What’s the significance of this?

1. This proves that humans form a tolerance for sugar just like drugs meaning you’ll need to eat more each time in order to feel full and activate your brain's reward pathway.

2. Down-regulation of the D2R receptors in the brain indicates a decreased ability to feel pleasure from substances or experiences outside of sugar. This is one reason why increased sugar consumption has been linked to mood disorders such as depression. This is also why eating sugary foods becomes a coping habit for so many people.

So, yes. Sugar addiction is real! These three MRI scans show the similarities between the brains of a cocaine and sugar-addicted individual. The red portion of the scan is dopamine being released upon experiencing a reward. Both the cocaine addict and sugar addict dulled their dopamine release out of prior anticipation, like I stated above. Much like illegal drugs, our brains crave sugar but our bodies hate it.

The Two Types of Sugar

Refined (Added Sugar)

Added sugars are any sugars unnaturally occurring in our foods that are added during processing. They improve taste, balance acidity, prolong shelf life, and fuel fermentation, however, they provide little to zero nutrients for our bodies meaning they are empty calories. Every year, humans consume more and more sugar but, because our metabolisms and the amount of sugar we need in our blood aren't changing, obesity rates are skyrocketing. When we eat too much sugar, whether refined or naturally occurring, it is stored as fat in our bodies. It's addictive and hidden in everyday foods so, how do we cut down to the correct amount? Keep reading to find out!

An obvious supply of added sugars (and the leading source of added sugars in the American diet) is soda. This is why completely removing soda from your diet is one of the most effective changes you can make for your health. Just one can contains twice the amount of sugar you should be consuming in one day! Don't think a daily soda can make much of an impact? Look at this chart from

What isn’t as obvious as soda, however, is the amount of added sugars that are hiding in many of the everyday items in your kitchen. Juice boxes, sports drinks, bottled tea and coffee, energy drinks, and flavored waters are other ways we tend to drink the sugar, and consequently calories, that make us gain the extra pounds and put us at risk for various diseases. When I started on my health journey, I felt lucky in a sense because I’ve never been much of a “sweets” person. I always thought my indifference for cake, cookies, anything chocolate, and candy saved a lot of unnecessary sugar from my diet. To my surprise, this preference was doing me no such of a favor. The Heinz ketchup I was using at the time had 8 grams of added sugars per 2 tablespoons which is over 30% of our recommended daily intake!

Some other items in your kitchen that may shock you with their amounts of added sugars are cereal, granola bars, fruit juice, sweetened non-dairy milk, barbecue sauce, flavored yogurt (one container of strawberry Yoplait has 13g of added sugars…), salad dressings, pasta sauce, protein powders, coffee creamer, peanut butter, canned or frozen fruit, and anything low or nonfat.

So, how do you identify products containing added sugars?

Thankfully, the FDA made this a lot easier as they began requiring that Added Sugars be listed on all Nutrition Labels starting early this year.

On a product's Nutrition Facts, you will find a % daily value on the right side of each nutrient including added sugars. These FDA values are to be interpreted cautiously as they are based off of a 2,000 calorie a day diet and are unaligned with the AHA's sugar recommendations. So don't let a seemingly small percentage fool you!

Women should be consuming less than 6 teaspoons of added sugars per day or 25g, and the guideline for men is less than 9 teaspoons or 36g of added sugars daily.

* This label states that the 10g of added sugars is only 20% of your daily value but, this would actually be doubled for women at 40% of our daily recommended intake.

Even with this new amazing addition to our Nutrition Facts, you should still be reading the Ingredients list on any products you buy! For one of my recent posts, I created a printable resource that includes all 60+ names for sugar. You can download it for free by clicking here. If a product’s Ingredients has one or more of the terms included on this list, it contains added sugar.

Sugar is everywhere... well, not literally everywhere but, it is in 3/4 of all processed foods. This makes finding alternatives free from added sugar difficult (but not impossible) which is why I have learned to make lots of things, like salad dressings, from scratch at home. I can tell you first hand that avoiding added sugar takes commitment but, it is so well worth it!

Choosing whole foods whenever possible is the best way to simplify eating a diet free from refined sugars but, when buying any processed products, read the ingredients, check the nutrition facts, and keep the correct dietary recommendations for added sugar in mind!

Naturally Occurring Sugar

Natural sugars, which do not appear on ingredient lists, are found in both fruits and dairy. They are metabolized differently by our bodies than refined sugars and contain many essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein, and fiber. Natural sugars raise our blood sugar levels in a slow, controlled manner which is what leads to long-lasting feelings of satiation. Contrastingly, refined sugars almost immediately enter our bloodstream, spike glucose levels, and create no feelings of fullness. 

So, yes! Natural sugars are healthy and provide our bodies with an array of benefits but, eating too many of them can still cause weight gain. Upon reaching the liver, sugar is turned into energy for our bodies no matter if it came from eating a kiwi or a handful of Fruit Loops. If we consume too many grams of sugar, no matter the source, it is stored as fat in our bodies. What we need to focus on is the amount of sugar we consume and what nutrients we receive from it. These two reasons are why naturally occurring sugars are far superior to the refined kinds. The cellular structure of whole fruits and dairy not only packs in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, it also helps to prevent the overconsumption of sugars through fiber content and protein.

The fiber found in whole fruit prevents the absorption of up to 30% of their fructose content which keeps blood sugar spikes under control and signals to our bodies that we have eaten enough. During the processing of fruit, fiber is pulverized out, reducing any satiating effects and densely concentrating it's natural sugar content. A majority of vitamins and minerals are also removed with the skin and pulp of fruit which is why packaged fruit products have reduced nutrient levels. Avoid fruit juice (yes, 100% fruit juice) and don't eat any kind of packaged fruits such as cans, cups, or pouches as these are all concentrated forms of fruit's natural sugar. It's also important to know that products containing "all-natural" sugars have vastly different metabolic effects on our bodies than eating whole sources of natural sugar!

Want to know the simple solution that guarantees you're making the right choice when it comes to fructose consumption? Eat unprocessed, unpackaged, whole fruits. That's it.

So, now that I've rambled on about fruit and fructose and fiber, there are a few guidelines to know about dairy products and their naturally occurring sugar lactose. Dairy is a great source of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and protein, and it's natural sugar content isn't something to be worried about or limiting in your diet. Regular milk, whether whole, 2%, 1%, skim, or fat-free, contains 12g of naturally occurring sugar per cup without any extra added sugar. Plain yogurt, whether full-fat, low-fat, or fat-free, is also free from any added sugars! However, the amount of sugar does variate depending on the type of yogurt you purchase due to the effects of displacement. As fat is removed in yogurt, the volume of its liquid portion increases which is what contains lactose. So, the more fat that's removed, the more naturally occurring sugar there will be. These sugar variations are very minimal (1-2g) and in no way justify steering clear of the lower-fat options available for plain yogurt.

Dairy products you should avoid, however, are flavored versions of milk and yogurt. Chocolate and strawberry milk contain significantly higher amounts of sugar per cup than the 11-12g of lactose found in regular milk. Just one cup of chocolate milk can contain 14g of added sugar which is 56% of a woman's daily recommended intake. Sweetened non-dairy milk is also be loaded with sugar so, be sure to check their labels before thinking you're making a healthier purchase with chocolate almond or soy milk.

Bottom line is that the naturally occurring sugar in both milk and yogurt is in no way problematic for your health. Added sugars from your favorite blueberry yogurt or chocolate milk, on the other hand, should be limited. To avoid these added sugars, choose regular milk and plain yogurt and mix in your own fresh fruit and toppings at home.

The key to a healthy diet is moderation and balance (are you tired of me ending my posts with this yet?). That being said, an occasional donut or bowl of ice cream will not stall you from your health goals! However, sugar is hidden in many of our everyday foods making it easy to consume an equivalent amount of refined sugar to a donut or bowl of ice cream at each meal without even noticing.

Health is neither created nor destroyed by one single food but it’s important to remember that sugar causes many types of bodily diseases. Although tasty, it does not nourish our bodies, it does not provide us with any vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, or antioxidants, and it does not add any value to our daily diet.

As they say, "Every time you eat or drink you are either feeding disease or fighting it."


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