Playing hide ’n’ seek with sugar

Every day Jessica eats apple-cinnamon oatmeal for breakfast, a protein bar for lunch and a granola bar for a snack. She lives alone, so she usually zaps some low-fat frozen food in the microwave for dinner.

But she’s just not losing the weight she wants. Why not?

Part of the problem, says Dawn Sears, MD, Gastroenterology, is Jessica’s eating foods she doesn’t even suspect have sugar in them. These products have what are called “hidden sugars.”

In 1977, the amount of energy Americans got from sugar was 10 percent, Dr. Sears says. Today, it’s 16 percent. That extra sugar accounts for 132 extra calories a day, equaling 14 pounds a year.

“Don’t add any extra sugar to your diet. Eat fruit, not unnaturally sweetened things.”

You can see that extra sugar in our waistlines and hips.

What Are Hidden Sugars?

“Hidden sugars are things that we’re eating that have added sugar in them — not in the natural way that the way the food is grown — but what is known as processed food,” explains Dr. Sears.

By contrast, natural sugars are fructose and glucose, for example, found naturally in fruits and vegetables.

Where Are Sugars Hidden?

Hidden sugars, Dr. Sears says, are often in foods we don’t even suspect as tasting sweet:

  • Spaghetti sauce
  • Crackers
  • Soups
  • Ketchup
  • Peanut butter
  • Protein drinks and bars
  • Granola cereal and bars
  • Sports drinks
  • Flavored oatmeal

“Know that almost everything that’s packaged in a box or a jar or a can has a little extra sugar,” says Dr. Sears. “The extra sugar is added to enhance the flavor and attractiveness of a food substance.”

What Are Other Names for “Sugar”?

Another issue with hidden sugars is that they often don’t say “sugar” on the label, so you may not realize the food you’re eating is loaded with sugar, says Dr. Sears.

Look for these alternate names for sugar on your package labels:

  • Molasses
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Malt
  • Corn sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Fructose
  • Sucrose
  • Dextrin
  • Maltodextrin
  • Ethyl maltol
  • Carob
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
  • Lactose
  • Galactose
  • Polydextrose
  • Mannitol

What Kinds of Packaged Foods Should I Buy?

In our fast-paced society, packaged and processed foods often make up a great portion of the foods we buy. Dr. Sears suggests these products for reducing or limiting the amount of hidden sugars we consume:

No-sugar-added products. When you’re grocery shopping, select items with either no additional sugar or the lowest amount of sugar, Dr. Sears suggests. “When I go shopping for my family, I look for the lowest amount of sugar available. For example, I buy the no-sugar-added cereals, and I don’t buy any sodas,” Dr. Sears says.

Take the time to read labels and compare. The time you take evaluating products you may save in weight gain.

Organic products. Products labeled as “organic” are another good packaged-food alternative, Dr. Sears suggests. Most organic foods have little or no added sugar.

Again, check the labeling to find the organic products with the least amount of sugar.

Dr. Sears suggests stocking up on organic packaged foods when they’re on sale, because organic products — though more healthful — are generally double the cost of regularly processed foods.

“I don’t have time to cook from scratch. I’m a busy mother of three,” Dr. Sears says, “and I work full time. Occasionally, I will buy the cheapest organic spaghetti sauce, but right now I have at home both organic spaghetti sauce and a bottle of Prego.”

What Foods Should I Avoid?

“Because it’s really hard to eliminate hidden sugars,” Dr. Sears says, “it’s most effective to eliminate high-sugar items — such as sodas and sugary cereals — so that items such as ketchup and tomato sauce, with hidden sugars, will have less of an impact on your family’s health.”

“Stay away from the high-volume sugar areas when you’re at the grocery store,” so you won’t even be tempted to buy sugar-laden products, counsels Dr. Sears.

High-volume sugar areas include the aisles with:

  • Candy
  • Cookies and snack foods
  • Sodas and other soft drinks

Dr. Sears further suggests avoiding artificial sweeteners — such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose — as studies have shown they have high addictive potential and their connection to cancer is inconclusive.

What Are Alternatives to Sugar?

When you’re craving something sweet, don’t snack on a cookie, a piece of cake or an ice cream cone, Dr. Sears counsels. Instead, she says, reach for an apple, peach or pear.

“The way God designed sweets in our fruits is perfect. Fruits have fructose — which is a sugar — but they also have Vitamin C in them. Vitamin C counters many of the negative affects of fructose,” explains Dr. Sears.

How Much Sugar Is OK?

Federal and international agencies are not in agreement on the maximum sugar intake. Recommendations vary from getting 25 percent of your energy from sugar to less than 5 percent.

“I tell my patients: ‘Don’t add any extra sugar to your diet. Just stick with natural sugars,’” says Dr. Sears. “Eat fruit, not unnaturally sweetened things.”

“If you have to have a sweet — an ice cream cone, for example — just do it once a week. Make it a special treat and make it smaller volume,” Dr. Sears says, “but don’t do four sodas a day. When you drink four sodas a day, you need to realize that’s 3500 calories, or a potentially a pound a week in weight gain.”

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Playing hide ’n’ seek with sugar