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Hidden Ingredients: Sugar


By Brooke Schohl, MS, RD, CSSD

Does sugar monopolize your day?

Breakfast: Vanilla creamer in your coffee, oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins Morning Snack: Clif Bar

Lunch: Turkey sandwich on wheat bread, banana

Afternoon Snack: Chobani Strawberry Greek Yogurt, granola

Dinner: Glass of Chardonnay, sweet potato, grilled chicken, green beans

Dessert: 1-cup ice cream

The above menu seems pretty decent at first glance. 3 meals, 3 snacks. No fast food, no crazy unhealthy choices or gigantic portions. While there are some healthy components to this day, the major drawback is the sugar content…a whopping 139 grams!!

Over 100 grams of sugar per day has become commonplace, due to the nutrient’s presence in almost all processed foods. In the example above, the processed food items include: the creamer, the brown sugar, the bar, the bread, the yogurt, the granola, the wine, and the ice cream. All items contain sugar. In addition, many foods naturally contain sugar like the raisins, the banana, and the sweet potato.

It’s gotten to the point that cheating and having something “sweet” like a cupcake or candy isn’t even accurate anymore because so many foods contain added sugar. We are cheating all day long, and many times don’t even realize it!

The Problem

I shop at Sprouts frequently and recently picked up a couple food items that disappointed the heck out of me when I got home and realized sugar was on the ingredient list.  One was tomato soup. Now tomatoes are a fruit, and already contain natural sugar. Why in the world ADD sugar to this product? I knew immediately after taking the first bite that it contained sugar. It tasted awful. The other product was salsa. Again, the fruits/veggies added to make the salsa are already sugar containing, yet the manufacturer felt the need to add a refined sugar.

Food manufacturers sneak sugar into many products like soup, tomato sauce, salad dressings, salsa, lasagna, lunchmeat, crackers, bars, protein powder, condiments…. the list goes on and on. Why is it present in almost all packaged items these days? To improve taste, or to make us more addicted?

This is a big problem. And it is a train that all processed food manufacturers have jumped onboard.   The specialty health food stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Trader Joes are no better than your traditional grocery store.   They add unnecessary sugar just the same as the others, it’s just masquerading under a fancy name.

The Types of Sugar

Don’t let the type of sugar fool you. Whether it’s agave, beet sugar, cane juice, coconut sugar, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fructose, glucose, honey, maple syrup, raw sugar, turbinado, or organic sugar… it’s still sugar. All sugar spikes your blood glucose when consumed alone and will lead to health issues (and addiction) if over-consumed.

The Associated Health Issues

Here’s the really scary part about sugar – the more you eat it, the more you crave it.   Sugar stimulates the hedonic pathway, which leads to habit and dependence, similar to the ethanol in alcohol. The cycle must be broken. Reducing daily sugar intake can truly be a battle as the mind must be re-trained and reminded that you don’t need those foods. Habits must be broken; new habits established.   There is a detox component of sugar unloading. Headaches, energy fluctuations, and irritability seem to be the most common side effects.   But these only last a few weeks, and it is well worth the investment.

Sugar is linked to Metabolic Syndrome, of which the markers include weight gain, abdominal obesity, high LDL/low HDL, increased blood sugar, increased triglycerides, and increased blood pressure.   It can also cause high uric acid levels, which is linked to heart and kidney disease. In addition, sugar consumed in excess is taxing on the liver, just like alcohol.   Fructose-containing foods feed cancer cells and are also linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

The Solution

1) Awareness. Be aware of everything contributing sugar in your daily fuel plan. Remember the sample intake day above? By making some simple changes, you can cut over ½ the sugar and feel a lot better!

Breakfast: Half & half creamer in your coffee, oatmeal with coconut oil and walnuts. Morning Snack: RXBar

Lunch: Turkey sandwich on wheat bread, hummus/carrots

Afternoon Snack: Chobani Plain Greek Yogurt, berries, pecans

Dinner: Glass of Chardonnay, sweet potato, grilled chicken, green beans

Dessert: ½ apple, almond butter

= 66 grams of sugar

How much sugar is reasonable per day? Well, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 24 grams for women, and 36 grams for men. But keep in mind that as an athlete, there are certain times of the training season where you are consuming more carbohydrates to meet training demands so there is some flexibility in these numbers. Regardless, keeping daily sugar intake under 50 grams per day is a good goal for which to strive! Foods containing natural sugar are always a better option than refined sugar.

2) Label Reading. Assume that all packaged items contain sugar, and force the label to prove you wrong.

3) Find Better Substitutions. Granola is a food that is usually very high in carbs and sugar, often having 3-5 different sugars added for flavoring. A client of mine just enlightened me to a better brand, Purely Elizabeth, which contains only 4 grams of sugar from one sugar source. The point is, there’s almost always a better option, it just may take some searching.

4) Make Your Own. When you make your own granola, cookies, bars, etc. you are able to fully control the ingredient list and make adjustments that you are comfortable with. It takes some extra time, but well worth the investment!

In Summary

The good news is that you CAN cut back on sugar and feel much better! Know what foods contain sugar, and avoid those that contain it unnecessarily. Then you can save your sugar intake for those special occasions where you want that delicious slice of birthday cake or some of your favorite wine. Recruit the help of a sports dietitian if you need more guidance.   Sugar detox happens to be near and dear to my heart!


Brooke Schohl, MS, RD, CSSD is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an avid triathlete, having completed many triathlons of all distances including 3 Ironman races. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific fueling plans for her clients as well as sweat sodium concentration testing. For more information on services and offerings, visit her website at

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