Registered dietitian Samantha Cassetty discusses how added sugar is hurting our health and some steps we can take to cut it out of our diets.
On average, Americans eat 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day — far more than the 9 teaspoons for men and 6 teaspoons for women as recommended by the American Heart Association.
“You can clearly see that we are in a sugar surplus here,” said Samantha Cassetty, who is co-author of the new book, Sugar Shock.
But the substance isn’t easy to avoid. It’s made its way into our drinks, cereals, much of our packaged foods, and other items that may surprise you, Cassetty said.
Wake-Up Call spoke with the dietitian about some of the foods to steer clear of, easy substitutes for added sugar, and how to “retrain your tastebuds” to slowly reduce the amount you’re consuming.
Wake-Up Call: What motivated you to write this book?
Sugar is one of the drivers of some of the most serious health conditions that we’re facing, like Type II diabetes and heart disease. It also drives mood disorders, like depression.
So I think it’s been a little under the radar as a driver of major health problems and one thing that’s really coming to the surface in 2020 is that these conditions aren’t just making people feel crummier than they need to feel, but they’re really putting their lives at risk in terms of undermining and weakening their whole immune system. So a virus, like Covid-19 can really take hold more easily in people who are suffering from these underlying conditions and can put them at serious risk for complications.
You have a segment in the book called the “Sugar Hall of Shame,” in which you identify foods particularly high in added sugar. There are some obvious ones, like soda, but can you discuss some foods that may come as a surprise to people?
I think that everyone expects soda to be sugary, but I don’t think they understand how much. For example, I was looking at a bottle of orange soda the other day that you would just get from your convenience store and it had 18 teaspoons of added sugar. So yes, you expect soda to be sugary, but do you expect it to have three days’ worth of added sugar? Potentially not.
Cereal is the leading source in people’s diets. I just read a survey the other day that the majority of people pick up cereal every time they’re in the grocery store and the majority of that cereal is sweetened. So even if it’s contributing 2 to 3 teaspoons of added sugar, when you think about the fact that you’re supposed to have 6 to 9 in a given day, that is making a significant dent.
I think people often don’t realize yogurt can be a very sneaky source of hidden sugars. I was looking at a yogurt the other day that had more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar and it’s because the yogurt itself was sweetened, the toppings were sweetened, even the nuts that came with it were sweetened.
Plant-based milk is something that has got my attention lately. Oat milk is really one of the ones that really drives me crazy, because it has a health halo around it but the most popular brand, which used to claim it had no added sugars, because of the way the oats are processed, actually has 7 grams of added sugar, which is almost 2 teaspoons. So, let’s just say you are adding that almost 2 teaspoons to your 2.5 teaspoons of cereal. All of a sudden you’re almost at your sugar limit for the day. Then you put that oat milk in your coffee and you’ve exceeded your sugar limit for the day.
You also discuss why we’re wired to crave sugar. What causes that and can the added stress of the pandemic make those cravings worse?
There’s a lot of things that contribute to our sugar cravings. But for one, we’re sort of hardwired to prefer sugar. It’s a natural preference for your body. Reward systems in your brain treat sugar similarly as other addictive substances, so it has some of these addictive properties that nicotine and cocaine have. When you consume it, it’s releasing these feel-good neurotransmitters and is telling you that this is something awesome. And the more you eat, the more you need to trigger that pathway. And because we’re eating it in so many sneaky sources, we’re constantly setting off that reward mechanism.
So that’s one of the things that’s heightening these cravings. On top of that, when you’re under periods of stress and you are perhaps not sleeping as well, it influences your cravings for sweet foods. It does get harder during times of stress.
Can you provide some strategies for fighting cravings and slowly weaning yourself off of added sugar?
The main thing is really retraining your taste buds. For one thing, you want to start using plain versions of yogurt, unsweetened oatmeal, unsweetened cereal, things like that. You can doctor them up yourself with certain seasonings, like unsweetened coconut flakes, or a sprinkle of cinnamon or a splash of vanilla extract. Those are things that remind you of other sweet things without adding any sweetener.
And again, trying to give up those sugary drinks. So if you’re drinking a soda every day, maybe you’re cutting it back to every other day and then cutting it back to every third day. Or you could take seltzer and mix it with a splash of 100% orange juice, so that you’re getting the bubbles and getting something sweet but you’re doing it in a much healthier way.
I think we also have to be careful of the refined grains we’re eating, so those are basically white bread, pizza crust, white crackers, refined-grain cereal. That form of carbohydrate is really sort of like a form of sugar in your body. So it’s not that you need to eliminate carbs, but you need to pick healthier ones. So for example, instead of a white pasta, you might pick a whole-grain pasta or a red-lentil pasta. Luckily in 2020, there’s a lot of options for people to make these healthier swaps, and that’s really what the book is designed to help people do. Make healthier swaps, so that you can enjoy the flavors and foods you love, but do it in a really healthier way.
Written and reported by senior writer Rachel Uda.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.