You've heard it over and over (and over) again: Added sugar is bad for you. In fact, "it's the root cause of obesity and most chronic disease," says Mark Hyman, M.D., director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and author of The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet Cookbook. "You name it, it's caused by sugar: Heart disease, cancer, dementia, type 2 diabetes, depression, and even acne, infertility, and impotence." And Americans, on average, are consuming way too much of it on a daily basis—152 pounds of sugar each year, which is roughly 22 teaspoons every day, says Hyman.
But try as we might, it just isn't that easy to quit. Not only are our bodies tossed into a vicious cycle of eat-more-want-more once they get a taste of the stuff, but we also don't really know where sugar is hiding, or what other aliases it goes by (hint: corn syrup, brown rice sugar, fructose, and cane juice crystals are just a few). "People are often flabbergasted to learn that, while they think they're doing a pretty good job eliminating sugars and carbohydrates, they're actually bombarding their bodies with calories from these sources," says David Perlmutter, M.D., a board-certified neurologist and author ofBrain Maker.
So it's time to change that. Check out these foods we—and we're betting you—had no idea had tons of sugar lurking around.
The danger with eating foods high in sugar stems from their effects on blood sugar, says Perlmutter. "Foods are rated in terms of how they elevate blood sugar by their glycemic index," he explains. "The higher the glycemic index, the higher the blood sugar elevation and the length of time the blood sugar will remain elevated." When those levels skyrocket, it can lead to health complications like heart disease and diabetes. So while it's still better to opt for the whole-grain version of bread over the white variety, you don't want to chow down on sandwich after sandwich—it clocks a 71 on the glycemic index, while a Snicker's candy bar, shockingly, has a lower rating of 51, according to the Harvard School of Medicine.
"Creamy dressings often create a high sugar impact, but balsamic can contain just as much," says JJ Virgin, celebrity nutritionist and author of JJ Virgin's Sugar Impact Diet. The reason: A lot of American-made balsamic vinegar is made with caramel coloring and cornstarch—two sugary substances—with the vinegar base being white wine vinegar. Why? The authentic, Italian versions require a 12- to 25-year aging process that negates the need for coloring and thickening additives, but not everyone wants to pay—or wait—for those products to be imported over. So if you're ordering a salad in a restaurant, Virgin advises against their version of balsamic. "Instead, ask for extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar for all the flavor without the sugar impact."
Here's the good news: Not all oatmeal is on the too-much-sugar list. But those who rely on the take-along pouches (or have an aversion to waiting for a pot to boil) are most likely beginning their day with a serious blood sugar kick. "It seems like most everyone agrees that oatmeal is a good choice for breakfast," says Perlmutter. But in actuality, many instant packets contain 13 grams or more of the sweet stuff because of all the additional flavorings (think maple and brown sugar, apples and cinnamon). If you've got the time, opt for steel-cut oats for a higher dose of fiber. Otherwise, you can still choose the quick-cooking variety, just grab the plain packet and add a dollop of almond butter—which research shows can help stabilize blood sugar throughout the day—for flavor, protein, and healthy fats.
Hyman refers to this group—the one with gluten-free cookies, cakes and processed food—as junk food. "Just because it's gluten-free doesn't mean it's healthy," he says. "Gluten-free cakes and cookies are still cakes and cookies," which means they're made with sugar. In fact, most contain excess sugars and gum to make up for the missing ingredients, and those are even more difficult for the body to break down. When you're craving something sweet, but still want to follow a low- or gluten-free plan, Hyman suggests playing with natural fruit instead. Grilling or broiling stone fruit, like peaches and plums, will bring its natural sugars to the forefront, giving you that sweet bite sans sugar crash.
Bummer: One of the most popular breakfast drinks in America isn't doing wonders for your waist. "A 12-ounce glass of orange juice contains about 36 grams, or seven teaspoons, of sugar," says Perlmutter. "Almost all fruit juices are concentrated sources of sugar" because they strip the fiber out of the fruit when it's sent through a juicer. Now, it probably won't kill you if you sip a 4-oz. glass of juice in the a.m. (and you're still getting a dose of healthy veggies if you grab a green juice), but it is something you need to keep track of so you don't go overboard throughout the day. Because doing so—like drinking a glass at breakfast, a green juice after your workout, and a soda in the afternoon—can send sugar directly to the liver, says Hyman. "It turns off a fat storage machine, which can lead to dangerous belly fat. [These juices] also don't help you feel full, so you end up eating more all day and craving more sugar and carbs," propelling you into that sugar-cycle that's hard to break.
Yes, even though Greek yogurt is a fabulous source of protein, calcium and probiotics, not all varieties are created equal. Some contain naturally occurring sugars, while others—those with fruit on the bottom, dessert-like flavorings, or mix-in nuts, for example—have extra doses added. The American Heart Association recommends women only eat 30 grams of sugar a day, but some of these contain 24 grams or more per serving—meaning you could be downing your entire sugar quota at breakfast. But all this doesn't mean we want you skipping out on those healthy benefits we mentioned before. Just think simple—or plain—when it comes to yogurt, and forego the extra flavorings. If it's too tart for your taste, stir in fresh fruit for a natural hit of sweetness.
Many foods labeled as a "diet" product, like 100-calorie snacks and desserts, are anything but because of their fake sugar content, says Hyman. "We're surrounded by low-calorie, 'health-conscious foods' and diet soft drinks that contain sweeteners," he says. "As a result, the number of Americans who eat products that contain sugar-free sweeteners grew from 70 million in 1987 to 160 million in 2000. At the same time, obesity in the United States has doubled from 15 to 30 percent." That's because the sugar substitutes, such as aspartame, acesulfame, saccharin, and sucralose, confuse your body. Research shows that these non-calorie, sugar-like imitations increase appetite and interrupt the body's ability to regulate blood sugar, which causes a metabolic change that could lead to diabetes. "If you have a desire for something sweet, it's better to have real, naturally-occurring sugar than the imitation stuff in 'fake foods." In other words, grab that big bowl of fresh, delicious fruit and enjoy.