Food & Nutrition

American Heart Association Recommends Daily Limit on Added Sugar


 By Shahreen Abedin

MONDAY, Aug. 24, 2009 ( — If you’re like most Americans, you will consume 22 teaspoons, or 355 calories, of added sugar today. Now, the American Heart Association (AHA) would like you to cut back dramatically.

For the first time, the group has issued guidelines that say most women should consume no more then 6 teaspoons (about 100 calories or 25 grams) of added sugar daily, and most men no more than 9 teaspoons (about 150 calories or 37.5 grams).

But here’s the tricky part: Added sugar not only includes the white table sugar you might spoon into a cup of coffee or a bowl of cereal, but also sugar added to food and drinks before you even purchase them. Added sugar is commonly found in soft drinks, candy, cakes, and cookies (though it lurks in many types of food, including some yogurts and even granola.)

Some of the most common added sugars are corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, sucrose, and syrup. In contrast, the most common naturally occurring sugars are fructose and lactose, found in fruit and dairy products, respectively.

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The new guidelines were published Monday in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

The primary pitfalls of added sugars, according to lead author Rachel Johnson, are that they deliver empty calories and they tend to replace other nutrient-rich foods in our diet. “Because most of us lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle, the food we do eat needs to be packed with nutrients,” says Johnson, who is a registered dietitian and a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, in Burlington.

Next page: How to tell if food has added sugar

One of the specific challenges of limiting added sugars is simply recognizing them. Food manufacturers don’t have to list the amount of added sugar on products, says Johnson. Instead, added sugars are lumped in with naturally occurring sources, and usually listed together as “total sugars.”

Johnson suggests identifying which sugary foods your family consumes most often, and investigating their specific sugar contents, either by finding the product’s website online, or by consulting the USDA’s food composition database.

Although added sugar is not directly linked to heart disease, it is associated with risk factors such as overweight and obesity, high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides, and high levels of C-reactive protein, which has been linked to oxidative stress and inflammation, says Linda Van Horn, a registered dietitian and chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee.

In contrast, foods with naturally occurring sugars deliver nutrients while still satisfying our craving for sweetness. For example, fruits have essential vitamins and minerals as well as protective agents known as phytonutrients, such as carotenoids and polyphenols; dairy products contain calcium, protein, vitamin D, and more.

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In the past, there have been few formal guidelines on how much added sugar is too much. The American Heart Association only went so far as to recommend that people “limit added sugars” or consume them “in moderation.” The USDA says that based on an average adult 2000-calorie diet, 10 teaspoons of added sugar, or about 40 grams, is the maximum.

So how do you cut down on added sugars? The number-one strategy is to eliminate or at least reduce the biggest source of extra sugar in our diets: soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages. For example, one can of soda delivers 130 calories and 8 teaspoons of added sugar.

Sodas containing artificial sweeteners can be used as a “transition beverage” to help reduce the number of sugary drinks consumed, recommends Johnson. Even better alternatives for soda are water, unsweetened iced tea, and low-fat milk, she suggests.

Another tactic: Limit processed foods, and opt for as many fresh, whole, unpackaged, and unprocessed foods as you can, such as fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, and seeds.

Next page: Avoiding heavily refined food may help

Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokesperson, says staying away from heavily refined foods means “you’ll not only save yourself from too much sugar, but you’ll also reduce the risk of overloading on sodium and fat and calories in general.”

You can “save up” your added sugar calories and use them to enhance the flavor of healthy foods, says Zied. For example, reserve your extra sugar for nutrient-rich choices such as fruit-flavored yogurt, chocolate milk, or frosted whole-grain wheat cereal.

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According to the AHA, the limits they recommend for men and women are a rough estimate. They say a person’s daily intake of added sugars should not exceed half of the daily allotment of discretionary calories, which are those calories left over after consuming foods recommended for a healthy diet, such as fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, high-fiber whole grains, and lean fish and meats.

You can calculate your own daily dose of discretionary calories on the USDA’s website, using several factors including age, sex, weight, height, and level of physical activity. Parents wondering about the right amount of added sugars for their children can also use the same website to figure it out.

In addition to sugary sodas, fruit juices and fruit drinks are common sugar traps for kids, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Not only do they provide fewer nutritional benefits than whole fruits, but sugary beverages are also associated with malnutrition, tooth decay, and stomach problems such as diarrhea and gassiness in some children, says the AAP.

Parents should choose 100% fruit juices and stay away from fruit drinks altogether, according to their guidelines. Kids ages 1 to 6 should not have more than 4 to 6 ounces of fruit juice a day; the older kids’ limit is between 8 to 12 ounces; babies under 6 months should not drink juice at all.

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