You probably believe eating fat is bad for you; understandable given the decades long war on fat. About forty years ago, the American diet began to change after researchers suspected fat was the driver behind a rise in heart disease. We were told to limit dietary fat, especially saturated fats. Many of those calories were replaced with low-fat alternatives and refined carbohydrates. Now after years of research failing to link saturated fat and heart disease, we know fat is not the culprit.
As the availability of processed low-fat and fat-free alternatives grew, so did our waistlines. Today in the U.S., more than two in three adults are overweight or obese and heart disease is still the number one killer of men and women. Too little physical activity and too many super-sized meals played a role to be sure, but the dietary culprit when it comes to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease is too much added sugar.
Sugar is found naturally in foods in the form of simple and complex carbohydrates; the difference between the two based on their chemical makeup and how our bodies use them. Carbohydrates are our primary energy source and one of three macro-nutrients (along with fat and protein) essential for health.
Experts recommend we get most of our carbohydrates from complex forms like vegetables, beans, legumes, and grains. Some examples of simple carbohydrates are soda, candy, pastries, and refined grains like white flour pasta, bread, rice, and cereal. Fruit is actually a simple carbohydrate, but due to a high fiber content, it acts more like a complex carb in the body. When we eat too many carbs, especially simple carbohydrates, we dramatically increase our risk for diabetes, overweight and associated health problems.
You may think you don’t eat much sugar because you skip the soda, cookies, cakes, and pastries (great job!). But take a closer look. Most processed food contains added sugar, as do reduced-fat and fat-free products. Sugar is added to make up for a lack of flavor when fat is removed. Dietary guidelines recommend less than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day (28.5 g), but the average American adult has about 20 teaspoons daily (95 g)!
If you’ve been frustrated trying to lose weight, there may be too much hidden sugar in your day-to-day food choices. Here are three steps to get you started on a fresh approach to healthy eating:
Monitor your sugar intake from processed foods and choose to reduce it.
When buying food that comes in a package, read the label and cut back on anything with too much added sugar. If the food has more than 12 grams of sugar per serving, make another more healthful choice (an orange instead of orange juice for example).
You may be surprised by how much sugar is in some seemingly healthy choices. Read the label before you buy it. Here is the sugar content for a few common products to get you started:
- Orange juice, 8 oz. 25g per serving
- Cola, 12 oz. 39g per serving
- Starbucks Caffe Latte, 16 oz. 17g per serving
- Subway 6-inch sweet onion teriyaki chicken sandwich 17g
- Yoplait original yogurt, 6 oz. 27g per serving
- Oscar Mayer Lunchables (turkey and cheese) 36g per serving
Put more whole and minimally processed food on your plate.
The best way to avoid too much sugar is to eat a varied and balanced diet of real, minimally processed foods. These include vegetables and fruits; fish, poultry, and meat; eggs; nuts, seeds, and legumes, dairy; minimally processed grains (brown rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat); and herbs and spices.
Enjoy healthy fats as part of your regular diet.
Fat plays a critical role in keeping you healthy by regulating blood sugar, providing energy, supporting brain health, transporting hormones and fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K), and protecting organs. Of no small consequence, fat in our food adds wonderful flavor and helps us feel satisfied.
Dietary fat may have other benefits we are only beginning to understand. A 2015 study of more than 25,000 people published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found study participants who ate full-fat dairy products had the lowest incidence of diabetes, while those who ate low-fat dairy products had the highest incidence. The study authors suggested that dairy fat could help protect against type 2 diabetes.
Rather than choosing low-fat and fat-free foods, eat naturally occurring saturated and unsaturated fats from a variety of foods that fit your lifestyle like eggs, fatty fish (wild salmon and sardines), avocados and avocado oil, nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazel, pistachios) and nut butters, olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed beef, organic plain yogurt, organic cow’s milk, and organic and unsweetened almond milk. As you read labels look for words like extra virgin, cold pressed, unrefined, and organic. DON’T EAT trans fats and hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated products!
Pay attention to serving size because you can overdo it with any food group. Some examples: a closed handful is a healthy serving for nuts and olives, 2 tablespoons for nut butter, 2 teaspoons for oils, and half of an avocado.
It may seem frustrating to have to unlearn what you thought you knew about a healthy diet. But take it on like a new adventure. Try new recipes. You may be surprised at how much more you enjoy your meals and how much less food you need to feel satisfied.
This article is for informational and educational purposes only and does not substitute for medical or nutritional advice.