When talking to patients, I hear a lot about sugar - questions about it, fear of it, love for it. Patients talk about the need to satisfy their Sweet Tooth, or avoiding dried fruits and juices because of the "sugar content." As with most nutrition issues, misinformation on the topic of sugar abounds. Is it really something we need to cut back on in our diet, or even avoid completely?
First, know that it's almost impossible - and indeed, not desirable - to completely eliminate sugar from your foods. That's because the basic components of sugar - glucose, fructose and galactose - are the basic components of most foods. Fructose, for example, is the sugar found in fruits and vegetables; galactose is the sugar found in dairy products, and glucose, the sugar found in grains and cereals. So it's very naturally occuring and gives these different foods some of their flavor and palatability.
When dietitians talk about limiting sugar in the diet, they are typically speaking about limiting added sugars. These are different, in that they are the sugars that are added during the processing or preparation process. If you add a teaspoon of sugar to your coffee, for example, or top your cereal with table sugar, that's an added sugar. So are the sugars that are in processed foods, like bottled salad dressing, sodas, or packaged cookies.
One more term that we sometimes hear is "natural sugars." When a patient uses this term, they are usually referring to things like agave or raw sugar, not the sugar that occurs naturally in foods. They mean this as a contrast to refined sugars, like table white table sugar or corn syrup.
Here's an important thing about that to remember: Your body treats all of these sugars in the same way! There is no difference between a natural sugar, or an added sugar, once it hits your stomach. It is because so many foods that you should be eating every day, like fruits and vegetables, dairy products and grains, already contain sugar that you should be limiting added sugars in your diet. Men should limit added sugar intake to 36 grams per day, and women should limit to 25 grams per day, according to the American Heart Association.
Here's a chart I like that serves as a good reminder on this: