Healthy Eating Tips

‘I’m an RD, and It’s Time We Debunk These 4 Major Myths About Eating Sugar’

Photo: Stocksy/Maja Topcagic
These days, it often feels like sugar is public enemy number one in the health and wellness world. And while we'd never suggest that sugar itself is a nutrient-dense ingredient—it has been linked to a multitude of negative health outcomes, after all—the amount of fear surrounding it does, by nature, create quite a bit of confusion and misinformation. Berries are bad for you because they're loaded with sugar, right? But agave is healthy because it's lower on the glycemic index than table sugar, no? And gummy worms made with sugar alcohols are basically a health food?

(Eye roll.)

Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, says that the demonization of sugar (and the many sugar myths that come hand-in-hand) is nothing new, but we are seeing it on a larger scale today due to social media. She explains that as the fat-free diet craze swept the ‘90s, companies needed to find ways to make their products taste better—because seriously, who wants to eat a fat-free cookie? "As a result, sugar was often used in place of butter or oil to dial up the flavor of packaged foods without tacking on any grams of fat," Cassetty says. "Unfortunately, after five to 10 years of low-fat everything and increased sugar intake, research began to show that this type of eating pattern can lead to a bounty of serious health issues." Some of these negative health outcomes, according to Cassetty, include increased inflammation, high triglycerides, low levels of HDL cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and more.

“Since then, we’ve seen so much research highlighting the fact that the types of fat you eat matter and can actually be super nutritious—just think of how extra-virgin olive oil is really important on the Mediterranean Diet,” says Cassetty. “We also began focusing on all the sneaky sources of sugar in our diets. In fact, the nutrition facts label was recently updated to reflect the amount of added sugars present on food labels—and all of a sudden, you could see that there is added sugar in everything. Think soups, ketchup, breads, and even foods we often crown with a health halo, like oat milk.”

This placement of added sugar content that took full effect in 2020 sent a new wave of sugar-haters comparing bananas to donuts and promoting low-sugar and low-carb diets. While Cassetty says we need to stick to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines that suggest women consume less than six teaspoons (25 grams) and men less than nine teaspoons (36 grams) a day, it’s important to develop a well-rounded understanding of sugar to make wise decisions about sugar consumption while feeling empowered to always enjoy guilt-free eating. Remember: An ingredient should never been considered "good" or "bad"—it's just food. Here, we asked Cassetty to bust a few popular sugar myths to help you do just that.

Myth #1: Fruit contains sugar, which means it should really be consumed in moderation

“I can’t stress enough that there is a tremendous difference between naturally occurring and added sugars,” says Cassetty. “Sugar in fruit is supplied by nature and comes packaged with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Then when you think about how eight out 10 Americans don’t eat enough fruit, this myth is so bad because so many people are missing out on a lot of beneficial nutrients.”

Cassetty says that all fruits are delicious and nutrient-dense. Her personal favorite? "I absolutely love Zespri Sungold Kiwis. This fruit is delicious and sweet while meeting 100 percent of your daily vitamin C requirement in one serving." Skincare mavens know this vitamin is essential for collagen production and glowing skin, and it’s also (as we're well-aware) critical for a strong immune system.

Cassetty also says that watermelon gets a bad rap in some circles of toxic diet culture because of where it lies on the glycemic index, but says that it’s 90 percent water, which contributes to proper hydration required for maintaining good energy levels and focus. "It also contains a unique compound called L-citrulline, which is linked to reduced muscle soreness post-workout," Cassetty says. Really, the list goes on and on for every type of fruit—yes, even the other "higher-sugar" ones like grapes and bananas. “I am very pro-fruit, and I don’t ever worry about consuming it,” says Cassetty. “I always add that carbs are team players, and I love pairing toasted walnuts with fruit. You get all this vitamin C and fiber from the fruit, plus a few grams of protein and fiber, plus magnesium and plant-based ALA omega-3s from the walnuts.”

Myth #2: Artificial sweeteners are a better substitute for the real thing

Since artificial sweeteners like Splenda and aspartame are relatively new to the culinary and food science landscapes, it has taken a while for research to catch up. While the nutrition label might make a diet soda or a sugar-free packaged dessert look like the healthier option, Cassetty says she’s not so sure. “I tend to avoid artificial sweeteners most of the time, including the things in pink yellow blue packets that are often in diet drinks,” she says. “They cut out added sugar in the moment, but over time, studies have suggested that they may actually undermine your body’s insulin response which can lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.”

Cassetty says that while these drinks have been touted to help manage blood sugar and overall health, emerging research is showing that they may do the opposite. She notes that most of the research being done is epidemiological, meaning that the links show correlation instead of causation—and adds that there are so many studies pointing in the same direction at this point that the links are probably true. While Cassetty says that for some, opting for one diet drink daily for a period could be helpful if you’re trying to wean off soda and usually consume multiple servings a day, you’re better off avoiding artificial sugars completely. Plus, there’s so much more satisfaction to be found in a favorite dessert made with real sugar, no?

Myth #3: Natural sugars found in foods like honey and maple syrup don’t count towards your overall sugar intake

This in undoubtedly one of the biggest sugar myths—there is a whole lot of confusion out there surrounding natural sweeteners beyond fruit. Maple syrup, honey, and more recently, date syrup, have been touted as “healthy alternatives” to refined sugar. Cassetty says that these types of sweeteners are what she personally reaches for most often when doctoring her morning cup of coffee or giving her oatmeal a boost, as they are healthier to some degree due to antioxidant content and the presence of bioactive substances. However, according to Cassetty, these sweeteners still count towards your daily intake of added sugars and should still be consumed in moderation.

“I pay more attention to the overall ingredients on a food label over where the sugar source is coming from,” says Cassetty. “I’m looking to see that it’s made of mostly whole foods and what the added sugars number is.” She says a great example of this are That’s It fruit bars. While the sugar content may look high, they are made without any added sugars and the only ingredient is fruit, so they’re a great option for an on-the-go snack that won’t count towards your sugar intake. However, a packaged cookie—yes, even if it’s vegan and/or gluten-free—will count towards your added sugars intake if there is the presence of sugar, maple syrup, honey, or any other kind of sweetener.

Cassetty also mentions that people often forget about a very common natural sugar: lactose, which is found in all dairy products. (And similar to the natural sugar found in fruit, lactose is not affiliated with the negative health outcomes that added sugar is.) She says, however, that flavored yogurts can also be one of the biggest offenders in terms of added sugars, so make sure to check the label for products that are low in added sugars. Her favorite brand is Siggi’s because she says it’s the only mainstream yogurt brand she knows of that has a range of options where added sugars intake is controlled. There should only be a few additional grams on top of the lactose, so watch out for those labels that have as much or more sugar than a scoop of ice cream.

Myth #4: Consuming anything with sugar will send my blood sugar on a roller coaster

Not true. “First of all, blood sugar responses vary from person to person,” says Cassetty. “Regardless of your personal body's response, I'll go back to saying again that carbs are team players. Whether it’s oatmeal or a piece of fruit, simply pairing it with other whole foods—particularly ones that contain protein, fat, and/or fiber—is a great strategy if you’re trying to manage blood sugar.”

How to manage your sugar intake without getting obsessive

If you haven't been notified that you should be concerned about your blood sugar by a healthcare professional but still think you may be exceeding the daily added sugar recommendation more often than not, Cassetty believes in a simple (but personalized) approach to sugar management. “My work is very client-centered, so people get to decide for themselves how much sugar they want to consume. That being said, excessive sugar intake can be tied to everything from mental health conditions to stomach pain,” says Cassetty. “I like to suggest a step-down approach where I have people think about the foods they consume the most often that contribute to excess intake. Those are usually sugary drinks like soda, iced tea, or fancy coffees as well as desserts, granola bars, cereals, and flavored yogurts.”

From there, Cassetty suggests replacements for some of these foods, like replacing your fruit gummies habit with a serving of no-sugar-added dried fruit a few days a week to give you that sweetness and texture without the added sugar or mixing 75 percent of your favorite sugary cereal with 25 percent no-sugar-added cereal until you can get to a 50-50 ratio or even lower. She says your taste buds are capable of adapting, and taking a step-down approach can help make managing added sugars a much less daunting task.

“Also, remember that your health isn’t ever about one thing,” says Cassetty. “It's never just about the sugar. Eating balanced meals at routine times to keep energy and prevent early hunger is essential, as is listening to your hunger and fullness cues to stay present throughout your meal. Also, it’s about getting movement, assessing your sleep, and practicing stress management because it’s going to be really hard to manage your sugar intake if you aren’t sleeping well or don’t have the tools to cope with stress.” Talk about words to live by.

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