What we eat day in and day out not only influences our future health, but plays a large role in how we feel mentally and physically. There’s a lot of confusing and conflicting information out there around what foods are healthy, but don’t worry, we’re here to help. Over the next 4 weeks we’ll go over the basics of the basics of healthy eating and how to easily incorporate eating habits into your life that give you energy, a clear mind, and good health long term.
First, let’s define whole foods (not the store!). A whole food generally means a food that is close to or in its natural state. Some examples are things like fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, unprocessed meat and seafood, raw nuts and seeds, fresh beans and legumes.
Minimally processed food are foods that are changed from their natural state, but in a small enough way that it can still be easily traced back to original form. Your great grandmother would most likely be able to recognize or make this food. These are foods like expeller pressed olive oil, whole grain pasta & bread, nut & seed butters, traditional yogurt & kefir, butter, canned beans or tomatoes.
Ultra-processed food are foods that have gone through many processing steps from the original ingredients, and usually will contain additives like sugar or preservatives. These foods tend to be more shelf-stable than minimally processed or whole foods due to these additives. Food like macaroni & cheese, packaged cookies & crackers, soft drinks, sweetened breakfast, cereals, packaged soups, frozen pizza, and chicken nuggets fall into the ultra-processed category.
Eating a more whole foods-based diet is not all or nothing, there’s wiggle room in here. But it just means we try to limit how many ultra-processed foods we consume in our day-to-day lives.
When we think about food, often it’s in the short term and no further past “how do I get dinner on the table quickly?” But we do know that the foods that make up the bulk of our diet impacts our current and future health. People who follow a mostly whole foods-based diet reduce their risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and many other conditions. Eating more whole foods makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight. This means that for people who are overweight that means losing more weight and keeping it off, and for people who are already a healthy weight that means staying at a healthy weight over time. Whole foods also contain more vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidants than their ultra-processed counterparts. This means you get a lot more nutritional bang for your buck whenever you eat a meal.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to drastically change everything about your diet immediately; this is not an all or nothing lifestyle! All foods fit, the adjustment comes in the form of how much and how often you eat ultra-processed foods.
Let’s start by taking a look at a common ingredient in ultra-processed foods: added sugars.
Sugar has been a bit of a hot button issue lately, but does that mean all sugar is bad? Not at all! There are many naturally occurring sugars found in whole and minimally processed foods like fruit, vegetables, and dairy.
Added sugar means that sugar has been added to the food product during processing. This can be something like honey drizzled over cut up fruit all the way to a highly refined sugar made from corn being added to a colorful breakfast cereal.
Sugar makes foods taste good, and is even added to foods we don’t necessarily consider “sweet.” We call these sugars “hidden sugars,” and can be found in everything from salad dressing to sausage, so knowing how to find them is key. We’ll talk about how to spot them in a bit.
Since we are biologically programmed to seek out sweetness, adding sugar to food products makes them extra tasty. Sugar on its own doesn’t have any fiber or nutrients, so when you eat an ultra-processed food that is high in added sugars, you take in more calories than you normally would in such a small volume of food. Sugary foods cause a quick blood sugar spike and then crash, meaning you’ll feel hungry again quickly, and crave even more sugary goodness.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to about 6 teaspoons a day for women, or 9 teaspoons a day for men. So if you’re looking at a nutrition label, that’s about 24 grams or 36 grams of added sugar.
Sugar-sweetened drinks are a large source of added sugar for many people. Since these drinks are liquid, they do almost nothing to satisfy hunger. So the sugar just ends up as extra calories devoid of any nutritional value. Let’s go over a few common drinks so you can see just how much sugar is in them, you might be surprised.
Gatorade Thirst Quencher Fruit Punch
48 g sugar per 12 oz = 12 teaspoons That’s double the amount of sugar a woman should aim for a day in one bottle!
Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino Grande/Medium
52 g sugar = 13 teaspoons
Arizona Green Tea 16.9 oz
34 g sugar = 8.5 teaspoons
Coca-Cola 12 oz
39 g sugar = about 10 teaspoons
Minute Maid Lemonade 8 oz
27 g = 10 teaspoons in just 12 ounces!
If you drink sugary beverages, weaning yourself off of them would make a massive difference in your sugar consumption, and allow you to shift to a more whole-foods way of eating. If you’re having trouble quitting, try:
Here are a few more examples of ultra-processed foods and see how they measure up in terms of sugar content:
Cap’n Crunch® Original
17 g per cup = a little over 4 teaspoons
Pop-Tarts® Brown Sugar and Cinnamon
15g per 1 pastry = almost 4 teaspoons per piece!
17 g per serving = 4.25 teaspoons in just that little cup
Sweet Baby Ray’s Original BBQ Sauce
16 g per 2 tbsp = 4 teaspoons of sugar in just 2 tablespoons of sauce!
This is a great moment to mention that you should check out the serving size and “servings per container” on the nutrition label. Are you actually going to eat the serving size? Or do you need to do a little math to find the true amount of sugar you’d be eating if you ate your normal amount?
Sugar spikes and crashes blood sugar, regardless of diabetes status, leading to energy dips and sugar cravings as the body wants quick energy. This leaves you on a roller coaster you can’t get off. A lack of sleep or otherwise low energy levels can also put you on that roller coaster, as your body seeks out quick energy to get out of the slump.
The good news is that if you find yourself frequently craving sugar, there are steps you can take to prevent those cravings.
Those are all helpful tips for avoiding a sugar craving in the first place. But what to do when you’re currently having a craving? Before you seek out something sweet, try these tips:
For long term success kicking a sugar habit, it’s good to know if you are a “moderator” or and “abstainer.” Knowing which you are will help you set yourself up for success. So let’s find out – hover over the situation that sounds most like you.
If Situation A sounds more like you, you are likely a Moderator.
If Situation B sounds like you, you are likely an Abstainer.
You do best when you have the freedom to enjoy a small amount of a treat when you want it. Your strength is that you are able to savor a bit of dessert and then feel satisfied enough to put it down. It’s important to know this because moderators often feel deprived and therefore more likely to binge if they try to abstain from sweets completely.
You do best when you “just say no” to foods that are likely to trigger overeating. We are often told that “moderation is key,” but for you abstaining completely is often easier and less stressful. Out of sight, out of mind!
While more natural forms of sweeteners may impart different flavors or nutrients, these sweeteners (sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave, maple syrup) are the same in terms of counting as added sugars in food. Spoonful for spoonful, the sugar content is pretty much the same. You may still want to use these at home, since at home you can easily control how much sugar is being added to your food.
Fruit does naturally contain more sugar than other types of foods. If you are eating a fruit in it’s least processed state (a whole apple or a handful of berries), it also contains fiber and other nutrients.
As fruit becomes more processed (such as applesauce or juice), it still keeps the sugar it has, but loses those nutrients that were part of the whole fruit. You also can take in a lot more sugar more quickly from the processed version of a fruit. For example, it can take anywhere from 2 to 4 apples to make 8oz of apple juice!
Dried fruit has a higher concentration of sugar and carbs than their non-dried counterparts because much of the water has been removed. Think about the size of 10 grapes versus the size of 10 raisins. The raisins will take up much less space, so the serving size is much smaller. This makes it easy to overdo it on dried fruit, but as long as you are savvy about portions, dried fruit can be a part of a healthy diet.
Have you ever tracked how much sugar you’re eating? It can be quite eye opening, especially when you compare it to the ADA recommendations of no more than 24 grams a day for women and 36 grams a day for men.
We recommend you look at the nutrition labels of packaged foods you are buying, and check out the “added sugar” line. It’s a new line required on all nutrition labels since this past January, and it’s quite handy.
You can also see how much sugar is in your meals by using Brook’s Food Journal. We use a very similar nutrition facts panel in our app to make it simple, but it’s based on your entire meal so you don’t have to add up each component yourself.
You can also view your average sugar intake per meal throughout the week or month by looking in your data dashboards.
on November, 13th 2020. Kelsea is a Registered Dietitian with her Master's degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA, and is one of our Health Coaches.