It's undeniable that we're battling a bulge problem in our country, and we know that the underlying cause is fairly simple: We eat too much and move too little. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, added sugars are contributing to the obesity problem, since they're full of extra calories and very little nutrition. They show up in many unexpected processed foods, including breads, salad dressings, and granola bars, and saturate soda, candy, and sweetened cereals.
But here's the rub: Sugar, on its own, can be a lovely addition to an overall healthy diet, and it doesn't have to lead to diet sabotage. The problem is that our sugar usage is often out of control, going hand-in-hand with our dependence on overly processed foods and drinks. Consider that one can of a cola beverage contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar; if you made your own lemonade with squeezed lemons, fresh water, and sugar, you would likely only use half that amount, and it would still be plenty sweet.
If we focus on moving our diets to less processed foods, with plenty of whole grains, fresh fruits, and veggies—along with low-fat dairy, lean meats, nuts, seeds, and beans—there will be room to add sugar for pleasure, without needing to invest in bigger pants. Here are some good uses for a sprinkle of sugar:
1. Sprinkle onto fruit. Sprinkling just half a teaspoon or 1 teaspoon of sugar onto fresh strawberry slices can make them irresistible, while adding only 8 to 16 extra calories. Compare that to one serving of a kid-friendly "fruit snack" like gummy treats, which contain around 3 teaspoons of added sugar in one little pouch (and pack none of the fiber and potassium provided by the berries).
2. Add a pinch to your homemade salsa. Fresh salsa is easy to make and nutritious. It's typically low-fat and high in vitamin C, fiber, potassium, and other important nutrients. There are lots of variations, like adding black beans or corn, or even tossing in a fruit like peaches. Adding a pinch of sugar can help balance out the flavor, especially if it's too sour from the vinegar. You can also experiment with a touch of honey or agave syrup. Just remember that a little goes a long way.
3. Sweeten your whole-grain cereal. Cereal can be a fantastic addition to your overall diet. One study, for example, found that girls who ate some for breakfast were leaner than those who didn't. Other research supports the theory that whole grains are a helpful weight-control tool. But we all know that all cereals are not created equal. Some sweetened varieties are more than 50 percent sugar. To reap the most benefits, check the ingredient list and choose a box that includes the word "whole" right next to the first ingredient. That means it's a whole grain. Make sure the cereal you choose is unsweetened, so you can sweeten it up at home. A handful of berries and a sprinkle of sugar will do the trick, saving you from several teaspoons of extra sugar that likely would have been added to the pre-sweetened version.
4. Top your whole-grain muffins with a dash of raw sugar. Raw sugar isn't necessarily healthier than other kinds, but there's one big benefit: its size. Since it has larger granules, it won't dissolve as easily as white sugar. Sprinkle it on top of a healthy, whole-grain muffin right before popping it into the oven, so it provides a nice, sweet crunch.
Remember, as with most anything else in life, "sola dosis facit venenum," or "the dose makes the poison." Sugar can be an innocent and tasty addition to an overall healthy diet.
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaRD.