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There's nothing sweet about sugar when it comes to your weight--and health. Sugar is sneaky, going by many names and often hiding in plain sight in so-called "health" foods or "diet" foods.
As long as you're consuming lots of the sweet stuff, your body has difficulty burning your own body fat for energy. But once you learn the many aliases for sugar, you can replace foods that pack on the pounds with more nutritious choices that help you slim down.
Sugar comes in two forms
There are naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruits and vegetables, as well as other whole foods containing carbohydrates. Then there are added sugars, which aren't integral to a food. They may be natural--honey in mustard, for example--or manufactured--like corn syrup in soda. But natural or manmade, sugars up both the carb count and the calorie count.
Most packaged foods, even ones you don't consider sweet, are full of the stuff. One popular brand of marinara sauce contains 11 grams of sugar in a half-cup serving. The tomatoes provide some natural sugar, but most is added.
Calories but little else
A teaspoon of table sugar provides 15 calories. That doesn't sound too bad. But when you realize that the average American consumes 154 pounds of added sugar annually, it translates into almost 750 calories a day. Sugars do provide a source of quick energy, but little or nothing in the way of other nutrients.
Eliminate added sugars all together and reduce your intake of all sugars and you're well on your way to controlling your weight and improving your health. Avoiding sugar is a key tenet of a low-carb diet such as Atkins.
Where added sugars lurk
Practically every item in the center aisles of the supermarket contains added sugar. When they reduce the fat content of foods, manufacturers must find another way to restore flavor, so they often turn to sugar. Learn how to spot it by carefully reading both the Nutrition Facts panel and the list of ingredients on the product label.
In addition to the obvious culprits, such as soft drinks, baked goods, juice and fruit drinks, desserts, candy and sweetened cereals, you'll find added sugars hiding in salad dressings, applesauce, barbecue sauce and even baby food. These empty sugars have been implicated in the epidemic of obesity, as well as in a host of health problems from dental cavities to metabolic syndrome.
As you prowl the supermarket, be on the alert for these words on packages: agave syrup, brown syrup, cane juice, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystallized cane juice, date sugar, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, fruit syrups, galactose and glucose.
Take a breath and continue on your search for golden syrup, high-fructose corn syrup (HFSC), honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt, maltose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, rice syrup, sorghum, sucrose, sweetened carob powder, treacle and turbinado. Amazingly, this is not a complete list.
What's for breakfast?
Imagine the sort of breakfast many people have each morning: an 8-ounce glass of OJ (21 grams of sugar), a bowl of crunchy bran cereal (21 grams) with half a cup of skim milk (6 grams), and coffee with another ounce of skim milk (1.5 grams). Eat that and you'd consume almost 50 grams of sugar! At midmorning, say you had a 6-ounce container of a well-known brand of low-fat lemon yogurt. Katching! Another 31 grams of sugar.
How about lunch?
At lunch, let's say you heat up a cup of tomato soup (10 grams of sugar) to have with a green salad tossed with 2 tablespoons of bottled low-fat honey mustard dressing (5 grams) and half a bottle of sweetened vitamin water (15 grams). Your "light" lunch leaves you feeling sluggish by late afternoon, so you grab a granola bar with up to 19 grams of sugar.
You haven't even gotten to dinner and despite having eaten no "sweets," you're homing in on 100 grams of sugar. If you have another 30 grams at dinner (assuming no dessert), you'll have consumed 520 calories as sugar in a single day.
A better way
Let's remodel these meals and snacks into low-sugar (and low-carb) versions. For breakfast, have a couple of eggs with a quarter-cup of sauteed spinach and an ounce of Cheddar cheese. Even with a tablespoon of cream in your coffee, you're looking at 0 grams of sugar. That's right, nada. Instead of sweetened yogurt, have a half-cup of cottage cheese with a quarter-cup of blueberries for 6 (3 plus 3) sugar grams.
A salad topped with sliced chicken and dressed with vinaigrette plus a cup of beef broth makes a filling lunch with only about 1 gram of sugar. In lieu of a granola bar for an afternoon pick-me-up, a low-carb nutrition energy bar packs only 1 gram of sugar.
Get the sugar demon off your back
But once you focus on eating whole foods, you'll find that you don't crave foods with added sugar. Instead, vegetables, berries and other fruits, nuts and whole grains, as well as a variety of protein sources and olive oil and other healthy, natural fats leave you satisfied and in control of your appetite. And because your sugar intake is low, you'll be more likely to burn your body fat for energy.
Be vigilant when eating out
When you stop at popular chain eateries, keep your sugar specs on. Here are some of the not-so-sweet surprises in store for you:
Chain: Starbucks. Food: Apple bran muffin (3.5 oz). Grams of sugar: 34
Chain: KFC. Food: Side of BBQ baked beans. Grams of sugar: 19
Chain: Blimpie. Food: Chicken teriyaki wrap. Grams of sugar: 13
Chain: McDonald's. Food: Sausage McGriddles (5 oz.) Grams of sugar: 15
Chain: Arby's. Food: Vanilla shake. Grams of sugar: 80
Chain: Au Bon Pain. Food: Cinnamon crisp bagel. Grams of sugar: 25
(Colette Heimowitz, M.Sc., is Vice President of Nutrition and Education at Atkins Nutritionals and author of "The New Atkins for a New You Cookbook" and "The New Atkins for a New You Workbook." Her blog can be found onwww.Atkins.com)
(WhatDoctorsKnow is a magazine devoted to up-to-the minute information on health issues from physicians, major hospitals and clinics, universities and health care agencies across the U.S. Online at www.whatdoctorsknow.com.)