- Sugar isn’t as bad for you as you may think. Fruits, vegetables, dairy, and other carbohydrates contain naturally occurring forms.
- The USDA and HHS recommends capping added sugar to 10% of your total daily calories, or about 50 grams out of a 2,000 calorie diet.
- Watch out for hidden sources of added sugar in beverages and processed foods.
When you’re at the supermarket looking at food labels, you may have noticed a new section on some Nutrition Facts panels: added sugar. By 2021, it’ll become mandatory for companies to list how much added sugar is in each product, and it’s enough to make you wonder: Is sugar really so bad for you?
The idea that sugar is bad and addictive is arguably the queen of all diet myths these days. For any nutrient, the dose makes the poison: Eat too little, and you’ll run into health problems. Eat too much, and you’ll run into health problems. While “moderation” is a trope older than the phone book, it’s an important key to better health so long as you’re defining it for yourself and staying in touch with your body’s satiety cues.
The reason why sugar has become public enemy number one in recent years is because of where you’ll find it: heavily processed food and beverages. Since it’s added to lots of wholesome foods during processing, it’s one of the easiest nutrients to overeat. The other problem is that added sugar is often found in foods that don’t make you feel full, but do add calories from the sugar itself. Consuming excess added sugar is linked to heart disease, diabetes, lifestyle-related cancers, and even cognitive decline.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends limiting added sugar to 10% of your total daily calories. On a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s 50 grams per day, but calorie needs vary individually. If 50 grams sounds strict to you, the American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 24 grams of added sugar per day, and men stay under 36 grams of added sugar per day.
FYI: One teaspoon of sugar is about equal to 4 grams.
- The Types of Sugar
- How to Eat Less Sugar (And Still Have Dessert Every Day)
- The Best Desserts for When You’re Craving Something Sweet
- The Best Time to Eat Dessert
- What I Ate For Dessert
- What Happened After I Ate Dessert Every Night For a Week
- What I Learned
- How Often Should You Eat Dessert?
- Is Eating a Ton of Ice Cream in One Sitting Worse for You Than Eating a Little Every Night?
The Types of Sugar
Since carbs ultimately break down into glucose, the simplest form of sugar that fuels our organs and keeps us alive, you’ll find sugar in just about any food — at least to some degree. However, there are two main types of sugars when it comes to food labels: naturally occurring and added.
What are naturally occurring sugars?
All carbohydrates contain naturally occurring sugar, and you certainly shouldn’t avoid them — they’re in veggies and fruit, after all! They include:
- Fructose (fruit sugar): fruit, honey, and root veggies
- Lactose (milk sugar): dairy products
- Sucrose (a combo of glucose and fructose): carbohydrates of all types, including produce
Fruit contains about 15 grams of naturally occurring sugar in one small piece (e.g., a small apple) or one cup serving (e.g., grapes). Similarly, an 8-ounce cup of milk is going to have about 12 grams of sugar. But because produce also contains fiber and dairy products also contain protein, these real, wholesome foods take more time and effort to digest compared to, say, a soda with added sugar.
What is added sugar?
Added sugars are ones that literally get added to a food, whether that’s you adding a sugar packet (or six) to your morning tea or purchasing a tea with 26 grams of sugar already in the bottle. Types of added sugar include fruit juice concentrate, agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, caramel, maltose, maple syrup, dextrose, tapioca, brown rice, corn, sorghum, wheat, glucose syrups, confectioners sugar, barley malt, corn syrup, molasses, turbinado sugar, galactose, and treacle.
The number one source of added sugar in the U.S. is beverages, which also do very little by way of satiety. (When you’re drinking something sweet, like fresh glass of celery juice or a Coca-Cola, do you feel full afterward? I’m guessing not so much.) These other food categories also often contain added sugars:
- Sweetened grain-based products, like cookies
- Sweetened dairy products and non-dairy alternatives, like some yogurts
- Sweetened foods and drinks with veggies or fruit as the base, like smoothies
- Condiments, toppings, and syrups, like BBQ sauce
To make matters more confusing, some products sweetened with fruit juice or fruit puree can still get labeled as “No Sugar Added” because they falls under the FDA’s definition of “naturally occurring.” If this makes you want to give up, fear not! There are a number of ways to cut back while still eating the foods you love. To consciously treat yourself regularly, here are my top tips adapted from my new book, Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked):
How to Eat Less Sugar (And Still Have Dessert Every Day)
So now you know the difference between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars, you know exactly what to do, right?! Just kidding! It can be tricky no matter what you’re eating, so here’s a guide to make sweet-shopping simpler.
Read the label: The first ingredient should be a real, whole food— not sugar by a different alias, or sugar itself.
Consider concentrated sources (of naturally occurring) sugar, which you’ll find often in bottled beverages, like smoothies.
Know the difference between snacks versus treats: If you like sweets and your goal is to eat a real treat — whatever that means for you, personally — decide if an item that contains added sugar is “worth it” for you to miss dessert today. For example, do you really want a super-sweetened yogurt parfait at breakfast instead of opting in on a brownie after dinner?
Aim for around 250 calories of “dessert” daily: This will help you stick to that whole “50g of added sugar” concept without making you feel beholden to tallying up numbers. Of course, how much and how often you indulge is up to you, but for better health, use 250 or less as your general cap for a daily indulgence
When in doubt, choose chocolate. Chocolate itself is higher in fat and feels a little bit more satisfying, so it can make it just a little bit harder to overdo versus sour or gummy candies, which are straight sugar.
The Best Desserts for When You’re Craving Something Sweet
These are my go-to favorites for when the sweet tooth strikes:
- Prepackaged ice creams: A Mini Klondike, Blue Bunny Mini Cone, or single-serving Häagen-Dazs cup are better options than bringing the whole tub into your home.
- Bulk candies that are just chocolate: Dove and Hershey’s do this best. You can have nine Hershey’s Kisses to yield a full serving!
- Cinnamon of any kind: If it’s spicy enough, you’ll slow down as you go. See’s Candies Cinnamon Lollypops, Atomic Fireballs, and Hot Tamales have all been successful treat options with clients.
- Single-serve chocolate-covered fruit: Try Diana’s Bananas, Dole Dippers or similar items from Trader Joe’s.
- Mint and peppermint: You won’t want to spoil that fresh flavor of Peppermint Patties or Andes Thins by going for something else.
- Dark chocolate — and not for the “antioxidants:” Getting a super-rich, specialty dark chocolate from somewhere amazing is a bit self-limiting.
Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, Good Housekeeping Institute Director, Nutrition Lab A registered dietitian with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Northwestern University and a Master of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University, Jaclyn “Jackie” London handles all of Good Housekeeping’s nutrition-related content, testing, and evaluation.
The Best Time to Eat Dessert
I wish I could be one of those chic women who “never crave sweets” and find total satisfaction in, like, a hollowed-out cantaloupe with a scoop of cottage cheese. I am a sugar head. For me, the day is not complete without something sweet. (Maybe I could learn a thing or two from going sugar-free for 10 days like this woman did.)
But since I know sugar is pretty much toxic for your health and isn’t great for your waistline either, I try to find ways to minimize the harm my sweet tooth causes me. That means on good days, I aim to restrict myself to only one dessert and instead reach for fruit or flavored seltzer other times I have a craving.
Then I started wondering: When should I eat dessert? Is it better to eat sweets after lunch, since that gives me a chance to work off the extra cals before bed? Or is it better to snack after dinner, to offset the odds that a single taste of the sweet stuff will send me down a dessert rabbit hole?
So I asked the experts. The general consensus: after lunch is best. “If you indulge in the afternoon, you’ll have the opportunity to burn off the calories throughout the rest of the day,” says Kristy Rao, a nutritionist and health coach. She suggests eating dessert about an hour after lunch. “If eaten directly after your last meal, you could become bloated and uncomfortable,” she says. “But you also don’t want to eat sweets on an empty stomach, since your body will absorb it faster and lead to a bigger blood sugar spike-and a bigger crash a few hours later,” she adds. (Check out these Healthy Desserts Sweetened with Natural Sugar.)
Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., agrees that post-meal is best. “Having dessert after a balanced meal allows you to get the benefit of the nutrients in the meal to stabilize your blood sugar from the sweets. Psychologically, it’s also better to eat it after a meal,” she says. “When dessert is ‘attached’ to a meal, it signals doneness, so it’s less likely to trigger a bunch of mindless snacking.”
Other ways to have your dessert and enjoy it too (without ruining your wellbeing): Get up and get moving after eating it, even if you just walk for 10 minutes; chug plenty of water before and while eating the dessert to help keep you from overindulging; and stick to a single portion, suggests Alexandra Miller, R.D.N., a corporate dietitian at Medifast, Inc.
Blatner recommends trying to follow the “social sweets” rule. Instead of eating at home or at your desk, commit to only indulging in dessert when you’re out with friends or coworkers. “A piece of cake at home feels guilty and overindulgent. That same piece of cake with others feels fun and celebratory,” she says.
What you eat matters too. Blatner says that dark chocolate and a cup of tea is the ideal health-conscious dessert. (See: The Best and Worst Chocolates for Your Body.) “The tea helps you slow down and savor dessert-time,” which boosts satisfaction, she says. Sometimes, she adds, the tea alone is enough. “Most of the time we want dessert just for the ‘taste transition’ after a savory meal. And you can get a similar transition with peppermint or flavored tea. It doesn’t taste like cake or cookies, but once you get into the new ritual of tea after meals, it’ll help you forget your dessert obsession.”
I don’t know about “forget,” but swapping my before-bed candy or ice cream for a post-brunch or lunch hunk-I mean square-of chocolate sounds doable to me. (Or maybe I’ll try one of these 18 Healthy Chocolate Dessert Recipes instead.)
- By Mirel Ketchiff @mirelbee
I want to start this article off by saying people should eat whatever they want to, whenever they want to. There are no “good” or “bad” foods, just foods that are more nutritious than others. Nothing should be “off-limits,” and if you’re trying to lose weight (that’s great if that’s your goal, but don’t feel pressured to!), you shouldn’t deprive yourself.
© Getty / Martin Novak I Ate Dessert Every Night For a Week to See How It Would Affect My Weight Loss – Here’s What Happened
OK, now that we got that out of the way, I should admit that I am one of those people on a weight-loss journey. Not because I’m trying to achieve a certain aesthetic or because I feel pressured to – I didn’t even try to lose weight before my wedding! – but I noticed my weight creeping up the last couple years. Since I have PCOS, I’m more at risk for developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. I want to get my health under control, and also be a little lighter so I can power through my workouts (less weight to try and pull during pull-ups!) and be more agile.
I’ve been using a calorie-tracking app to track my food and I aim to stay within a calorie target each day. Since starting this journey, I’m down 10 pounds – slowly, but surely. Since this isn’t a specific diet and my only goal is to hit a specific calorie target, no foods are “off-limits.” This gives me room to enjoy my favorite foods (in moderation, of course) and never feel deprived.
I should also admit that I’m not a huge sweets person: cake doesn’t tempt me, I couldn’t care less about cupcakes, and I would rather have a slice of pizza than a piece of tiramisu. But I do like something sweet after dinner, and if I told myself dessert was completely off limits, it would make me crave it more, leading to an unhealthy binge and probable weight gain. So I wanted to enjoy dessert every night for a week and see if that had any impact on my weight loss. Turns out, there’s a method behind this way of thinking.
Registered dietitian and ACSM-certified personal trainer Jim White recommends his clients enjoy 150 calories of whatever they want at the end of the day, even if they are trying to lose weight. “Everyone needs a little break from dieting, and I feel 150 calories each day of discretionary calories won’t break the bank, especially if it’s budgeted in,” Jim explained. “Think of it like the carrot at the end of the day.” He added that the end-of-day treat doesn’t necessarily have to be dessert; it can be a glass of wine, a small bowl of chips, or a mini bag of popcorn. It will help you get through each day and help you stick to your plan.
Jim said if you can budget for this 150 calories within your daily calorie target, it won’t have an impact on your weight-loss goals at all. But even if you go over by 150 calories every once in a while, it won’t totally derail your progress. With those words of wisdom in mind, my experiment began.
What I Ate For Dessert
A big part of this experiment was being able to eat the sweet foods I enjoy. A handful of berries wasn’t going to cut is as dessert if what I was really craving was a piece of chocolate. So I made it work, and was just careful to measure out portion sizes. I’m a big fan of Skinny Dipped Almonds, and made room for a serving (about 15 almonds) of the Chocolate Peanut Butter and Dark Chocolate Mint flavors. I love chocolate and peanut butter, as well as chocolate and mint together, so eating these chocolate-covered almonds was enough to satisfy my sweet tooth. Each serving had about 150 calories, 12 grams of fat, 11 grams of carbs, and seven grams of sugar.
My other go-to treat was dark chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s. I buy the little packs of the wrapped ones from the checkout line and keep them in my freezer. Each piece is big enough and sweet enough to be satisfying. One peanut butter cup is about 67 calories, four grams of fat, seven grams of carbs, and six grams of sugar. I was usually satisfied after one or two pieces. Other desserts I reached for were a square or two of 72 percent cacao dark chocolate (67 calories, 5.7 grams of fat, 5.6 grams of carbs, and 3.3 grams of sugar per square) or a tablespoon of chocolate peanut butter from RXBAR (90 calories, 6.5 grams of fat, 4 grams of carbs, and 1.5 grams of sugar per tablespoon) with an apple.
Since I knew the nutritional information for everything I was eating, I was able to factor it into my daily calorie budget. But even if I didn’t necessarily allot for dessert that day and went over my daily calorie target with dinner, I still treated myself every night before bed.
What Happened After I Ate Dessert Every Night For a Week
My weight fluctuates like crazy and the scale continues to surprise me – I could gain three pounds overnight or lose a half a pound after a weekend eating nothing but pizza and Aperol spritzes – so I wasn’t sure what would happen after my week of eating dessert. But after weighing myself one week after starting my experiment, I was down a little over two pounds! It was a pleasant surprise and a reminder that I can still eat the foods I love and am craving without impeding my progress.
I should also note that, in general, I weigh myself every few days. I have a fraught history with the scale – I used to weigh myself obsessively every day – and while the number on it used to have a huge impact on my mood (positively and negatively), I no longer tie my happiness to what the scale says. If it’s a higher number than I’m expecting, I acknowledge that and move on with my day.
What I Learned
When I would try (unhealthily) to lose weight in the past, I had an all-or-nothing mentality. I would cut out everything I considered “bad,” including sweets and dessert, all in the name of losing weight. I could last for maybe a week or two, but would crave sweets and salty carbs so heavily. Inevitably, I would not only give in to my cravings, but go on a full-on binge buying candy from CVS or giant cookies from the bakery.
By eating a little bit of something sweet each night after dinner, I was able to honor my cravings without going on a sugar binge. It was enough to satisfy my sweet tooth and leave me feeling good before bed – no sugar rush or inevitable crash and stomachache like after a dessert binge.
Sometimes I don’t crave something sweet after dinner, in which case I’m totally satisfied with my evening meal. But other times I do, and I know that if I reach for one of my go-to desserts, I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. I can enjoy the foods I love and still stay on track with my goals.
(VIDEO) Science says this is why you eat junk food the day after drinking (Buzz60)
How Often Should You Eat Dessert?
Dieting shouldn’t mean giving up all your favorite foods. Weight-loss experts say it’s crucial to incorporate treats into your diet so you don’t feel deprived.
But this often causes diet confusion, leading women to believe that they can consume a candy bar every single night without consequences. Unfortunately, over-indulging isn’t going to help you lose weight, no matter who says so. So, how often should you have a treat if you’re trying to lose weight?
- If you do have a treat, factor the calories into your daily total. That means if you want to have a 150-calorie serving of potato chips, you need to cut out 150 calories from another meal during the day.
- Besides watching your caloric intake, keep an eye on how much saturated fat you consume. In general, you should limit your saturated fat intake to less than 15 grams a day, which will be hard if you’re eating a lot of junk foods. So by all means enjoy your ice cream, but limit your consumption to two servings a week.
- If you’re used to having a junk food treat every day, wean yourself off slowly. Start by having half of your usual amount, or have one serving every other day until you can cut it down to only twice a week.
- If you think your life seems empty without the promise of dessert at the end of every day, then swap fruit for your donut, or try a low-cal version of your favorite treat. Just don’t let yourself feel like you’re giving up something when you compromise. Instead, you’re going to gain a higher quality of life and a fitter body!
Is Eating a Ton of Ice Cream in One Sitting Worse for You Than Eating a Little Every Night?
Wondering what’s worse, eating a whole pint of ice cream at once or a little bit each night? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear-cut. Some research suggests that every-so-often binges can increase your metabolism slightly so that you may gain less weight than if you were to spread those calories out over a handful of meals. However, it isn’t guaranteed that everyone’s body will react the same way, and for some (like people with type 2 diabetes), a steep blood sugar spike might actually be dangerous. Another potential snag is that these types of feeding frenzies have the potential to trigger future cravings. That’s because the more sugar we consume, the more likely it is that our taste buds could become desensitized to sweets. As a result, we may need more and more sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth over time. One other thing to consider: Chances are you probably won’t feel stellar after polishing off an entire pint and might even experience some bloating and abdominal pain.
Health’s medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is an associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and a cofounder of TULA Skincare.
If you’re trying to lose weight, an overhaul of your eating habits is a good way to begin. Focusing on whole foods, cutting down on sugar, and packing in fruits and veggies at every meal can go a long way.
And while eating healthier overall is a great start, it can be a little bit tricky to figure out whether treating yourself to dessert is just part of a balanced weight-loss plan or if it’s actually screwing you over.
The good news is that you don’t need to give up all dessert in order to successfully lose weight, says Rachel Meltzer Warren, R.D.N., a Jersey City, NJ-based registered dietitian and nutritionist. “It’s not realistic to tell people to never eat dessert; that’s not something I expect of my clients, or myself!” says Metltzer Warren.
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So instead of swearing off ice cream, Girl Scout cookies, and doughnuts, she suggests digging into a treat once or twice a week. She says this shouldn’t derail your progress as long as you keep your portions in check. (Learn how bone broth can help you lose weight with Women’s Health’s Bone Broth Diet.)
“What I see with clients is that it’s all about resetting your habits so that when you do eat a doughnut or cupcake, you really appreciate and enjoy it,” she says. “When sugary treats are your default sweet food and you eat them every day, you overdo the calories and the enjoyment of the treat barely registers anymore,” says Meltzer Warren. But when you make those high-calorie desserts an every-once-in-a-while thing, the calories go a lot further in terms of satisfaction and they don’t make a huge dent in your calorie or sugar intake for the week.
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Plus, you can always swap out unhealthy desserts for more healthful options or evaluate what causes your sweet tooth and try to curb those cravings.
“If you have a sweet tooth, think about the area where you tend to overdo it,” Meltzer Warren says. If you always have dessert after dinner, a good strategy can be to switch to a healthier sweet food like fruit for most of the week. However, an even better option is to retrain your brain to associate dinner with something like sipping herbal tea or brushing your teeth post-meal. Then, treat yourself to something you really look forward to like a piece of cake or ice cream once or twice a week. Make it a really good one. And enjoy every single bite.
Nina Bahadur Nina is a freelance writer living in NYC with her husband and beloved mystery mutt, Joey.