How to sideline sneaky sugars

Mar 10, 2010 at 12:47 p.m. ET

There’s nothing sweet about sugar when it comes to your weight — and health. Rather, sugar is sneaky, going by many names and often hiding in plain sight in so-called health and 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. Here's how to sideline those sneaky sugars lurking in your diet.

Woman looking for hidden sugars

Sugar Comes in Two Forms

There are naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruits and vegetables and grains and 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 a soda. But natural or man-made, sugars increase both the carb count and the calorie count of foods. Most packaged foods, even ones you don't remotely consider dessert are full of the sweet stuff. One popular brand of marinara sauce contains a whopping 11 grams of sugar in a half-cup serving! The tomatoes provide some natural sugar, but most of the sugar is added. (Read the labels -- you'll be surprised!)

Full of 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. Eliminating all added sugars from your diet and reducing your intake of naturally occurring 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 food manufacturers reduce the fat content of foods, they must find another way to restore flavor, so they often turn to sugar. You can spot added sugars by 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, 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.

The many names of sugar

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. Wow! 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 even a complete list!

Ban the sugar-heavy 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! By midmorning, say you had a 6-ounce container of a well-known brand of low-fat lemon yogurt; add another 31 grams of sugar. It's not even noon!

Lose the sugary 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 for up to 19 grams of sugar. You haven't yet gotten to dinner and despite having eaten no "sweets," you're homing in on 100 grams of sugar. If you had another 30 grams of the sweet stuff at dinner (assuming no dessert), you'll have consumed 520 calories as sugar in a single day. Ouch!

Be Vigilant When Eating Out

Looking for dinner? 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:

  • Starbucks apple bran muffin = 34 grams of sugar
  • KFC side of BBQ baked beans = 19 grams of sugar
  • Blimpie chicken teriyaki wrap = 13 grams of sugar
  • McDonald's sausage McGriddles = 15 grams of sugar
  • Arby's vanilla shake = 80 grams of sugar
  • Au Bon Pain cinnamon crisp bagel = 25 grams of sugar

Drive-thru foods are notoriously high in sugar, even if you order fast foods that aren't technically "sweet."

Low-sugar and low carb alternatives

Now let's remodel these meals and snacks into low-sugar -- and low carb -- versions.

Breakfast: Opt for a couple of eggs, a quarter-cup of sautéed 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 mid-morning, have a half-cup of cottage cheese (3 grams) with a quarter-cup of blueberries (3 grams) for a mere 6 grams of sugar.

Lunch: 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

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 will 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.

Read the labels and ingredient lists of the foods in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer to find those sneaky sugars. Get rid of the added-sugar culprits and strive to limit your total sugar intake.

Keep reading for our low sugar, low carb recipes