With Halloween just days away, there are plenty of treats poised to trick you into deserting your healthy eating plan. And the Night of Evil Temptations is just the first in the upcoming cascade of holidays that doesn't end until January.
As you know, the Lean Plate Club isn't about dieting or deprivation, it's about eating healthfully for the long haul. So how can sugary foods and drinks fit into a healthy eating plan?
For that, there's new guidance from the Dietary Reference Intakes. Issued by the National Academy of Sciences' Food and Nutrition Board, the DRIs set intake levels for vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber. This year, for the first time, the DRI report suggests a "maximal intake" of calories from added sugars.
According to the DRIs, food and drink with added sugars (and that includes soft drinks, gum, cookies, cakes, ice cream and nearly everything that winds up in a Halloween haul bag -- half of which, as we all know, is surreptitiously consumed by parents of trick-or-treaters) should make up no more than 25 percent of total daily calories. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, no more than 500 calories should come from added sugars. That's about 125 grams.
If you're having a hard time controlling your daily calorie intake and the bathroom scale, it may be worthwhile to count up the grams of sugars in a typical day or two of eating -- you may discover that your sweet tooth is a source of your weight problem.
But no matter what you find, don't use the DRIs as permission to boost your intake of sweets. "This is not a recommendation [to eat 25 percent of calories as sugars], it's an absolute ceiling," says Rachel Johnson, dean of the University of Vermont's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a member of the expert committee that wrote the recent DRI report. "You really shouldn't be planning diets that come close to including that 25 percent of added sugars."
That's because when the experts reviewed the scientific literature, including national nutrition and health survey data collected by the federal government, they found that as added sugars increased, intake of key nutrients decreased. As added sugars rise above 15 percent of caloric intake, explains Joanne Lupton, professor of nutrition at Texas A&M University and chairwoman of the committee that wrote the DRI report, "you see a gradual drop for the intake of major micronutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, vitamin A and vitamin E. It becomes significant when you get to the 25 percent of calories from added sugars; that's why we chose that as the cutoff point."
Bottom line, says Johnson, is "that when you add sugar, you either add calories or you dilute other important nutrients." Meaning eating lots of sugars can make you either fat or undernourished, or both.
But it's a misconception that all sweet foods are bad. It depends what they are. Sugars play "a role in making foods palatable and acceptable," notes Johnson. And whether it's high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, sucrose or lactose, all sugar is biochemically similar. What differs is what that sugar comes in -- whether in fruit and vegetables (which deliver fiber and other important phytonutrients), in cereal (with fiber, folic acid and vitamins and minerals), in dairy products (with calcium, plus added vitamins A and D) or in soft drinks or candy (with little or no additional nutritional value).
Sure, that sweetened yogurt may pack about 20 grams of added sugars. (To know exactly how many grams, compare it with the plain variety, since the Nutrition Facts label lists only carbohydrates, not added sugars.) But for the sweetened yogurt's 200 calories you also get calcium, vitamins, minerals and active cultures. Two hundred calories of Dr Pepper also has lots of sugar, but with no nutritional value.
As an example of how sweets can contribute to a healthy diet, Johnson cites a recently published study comparing children who drank chocolate milk with youngsters who didn't. "We found that kids who drank chocolate milk had higher intakes of both flavored and unflavored milk," she says. "Their calcium intakes are higher and they drank less soft drinks and sweetened fruit drinks" than kids who didn't drink flavored milk. Which is to say: Plain milk may be a better choice as far as added sugars than chocolate milk, but chocolate milk is a far better choice than soda.
Other good nutritional choices with sugars added include the seasonally popular pumpkin pie and candied yams; yogurt; pudding; applesauce; mango sauce; caramelized apples; brown betty and fruit bars. And if adding a teaspoon or two of sugar makes the difference between whether you (or a child of your acquaintance) choose a bowl of fresh strawberries or a candy bar, there isn't a choice: Go with the sugared fruit.
The goal, Johnson says, is to not to avoid all sugars, but to "think about the food vehicle that added sugar is in."
-- Sally Squires
How do you soothe a sweet tooth? Share your tips -- or ask any nutrition question -- when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club, our online weekly chat about healthy eating and exercise. You can join the discussion live today from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com, or leave questions ahead of time. If you want to subscribe to the free weekly electronic Lean Plate Club newsletter, log on to www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/email/front.htm.