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Hidden Sugar Can Wreck Your Diet

May 22, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Glen recently left my office a changed man.

Like so many of my patients these days, Glen was watching what he eats.

There are countless reasons for it. Some people want to lose weight. Others want to gain. Some patients have fitness goals, some have health goals, and some have health needs.

Glen has a very specific need. With Type II Diabetes, what he eats has an immediate, direct impact on his health. Glen came in knowing that—despite being married to a nutritionist—he was doing a poor job controlling his sugar intake.

The truth is, that should be a goal for everyone. Sugar, while a necessary part of any balanced diet, makes up much too large a portion in our Western diet.

Indeed, I think the way we consume sugar is so important—and affects so many of our systems—that I insist on a blood glucose (sugar) test for each of my patients.

Our relationship to sugar is so vital, if it’s the only thing I improve in my patients’ lifestyle, it’s worth it.

In fact, for the past 29 years I’ve had a nutritionist, Liliana Partida, in house as part of my practice. Her laser focus on nutrition has helped many of my patients prevent oncoming diabetes or heart conditions that seemed inevitable from their test scores. Frankly, I think everyone should have a consult with a nutritionist at some point.

Because, sadly, sugar is sneaky. You can try to eat the right amount – as Glen was doing—but fail, simply because sugar is in so many things we don’t realize.

Including a surprising number of “healthy” options.

Luckily, there are a few tricks that will help you tell the difference between good food and bad.

Today, I’m going to share five foods with more sugar than you think…and my three favorite methods to tell when a food is safe to eat or not.

Oatmeal and Cereal

One of Glen’s big problems was that he ate oatmeal every morning. Oatmeal has a huge health halo—but is often extremely sugary.

First off, most oatmeal and cereal has a lot of sugar added. The grains by themselves don’t have a lot of flavor, so most manufacturers add high fructose corn syrup to sweeten things up.

But, on top of that, both oatmeal and cereal are high in carbohydrates. And what happens to carbohydrates after you eat them? That’s right—the body turns them into sugar, and they get stored away in fat. Even “healthy” options like puffed millet does this.

In other words, oatmeal and cereal are often overlooked, when it comes to sugar. But most types are like eating a candy bar for breakfast.

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Yogurt

To be clear, plain yogurt itself is very healthy. Lots of protein and beneficial probiotics.

But many people don’t like the taste of plain yogurt. That’s why most yogurt on the market today has a ton of sugar added. Once again, a candy bar isn’t far off.

You eat the sugar-free version? That’s no better. The sugar substitutes in sugar-free versions have the same effect upon our biochemistry. They cause a flood of insulin—which causes us to both crave food, and store energy as fat. Not a good combo.

Salad

Once more—salad itself isn’t bad.

But the dressings we put on our salads usually are. Indeed, I feel like restaurants like Applebee’s shouldn’t even be allowed to call their plates “salads.” Those are really candied greens.

Most salad dressings have five to seven grams of sugar per serving. That’s like sprinkling two teaspoons of sugar over your “healthy” plate of veggies!

Avoid this by making your own oil-and-vinegar vinaigrette. Don’t go with store-bought—premade vinaigrettes are as bad as anything else out there.

Pasta

Pasta can give you a huge dose of sugar, if you aren’t careful.

First, most store-bought (or restaurant-made) pasta sauces have a ton of sugar. Tomatoes should add about three grams of sugar per half-cup by themselves. But look at the ingredients on the label – there’s more sugar. In fact, most pasta sauces have six to eight grams of sugar per serving, or more.

That’s a lot of unnecessary added sugar.

Meanwhile, the pasta itself is a huge carb-load. And, just as with oatmeal and cereal, those carbs turn into sugar in your body.

Meat

Once more, the sauces are the worst culprit.

Teriyaki sauce tastes sweet for a reason. Barbeque might as well be spicy sugar. Anything store-bought that dresses your meat—or anything in a restaurant—probably has a lot of sugar.

You see how nefarious sugar is. Right about now, it might feel like there’s nowhere to turn. However, there are a number of safe foods. Here’s how to spot them.

Three Tricks For Avoiding Sugar

  1. Trust your taste. If something is sweet, there’s a good reason. Don’t think only of stereotypical foods, but anything—like the teriyaki sauce I mentioned above. Fruits are great, when you’re eating the raw, whole fruit. The naturally occurring sugars in raw, whole fruit are more difficult to absorb because of the accompanying fiber. But sugar is still sugar. So if you know you need to monitor sugar intake, be careful with fruits that are manipulated to concentrate their sugar, by cooking, juicing, or drying. Conversely, if a food has some bitterness, it almost certainly is safe.
  2. Avoid anything that grows when you cook it. This means rice, pasta, oatmeal, and the like. That’s a sign of carbohydrates, which the body will turn into sugar.
  3. Go to foods that shrink when you squeeze them. If you grasp a handful of spinach, you might be able to reduce it to the size of a pea. Cook broccoli and it shrinks. That’s a sign of a high water content—which corresponds to low sugar content.

To be clear, not all sugar is bad for you. Indeed, we need a certain amount to survive. But there’s too much in our modern diet. Avoid most of it—especially anything added, as opposed to naturally occurring—and you’ll come much closer to the ideal ratio.

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