If you are trying to avoid sugar in your diet, then your first thought might be to cut out things like cookies, ice cream, and candy. And while this would certainly be a positive step, if you really want to lower your sugar consumption and get healthier then you'll have to focus not just on what you are eating, but what you are drinking as well.
In fact, what you drink may well be one of the most important things you need to pay attention to if you want to cut back on sugar.
Drinks are the biggest source of added sugar in our diets
Did you know that most of the added sugars in our diets come from the beverages we drink?
It's true – sugary beverages are the number one source of added sugars in the American diet. That includes everything from sodas to fruit drinks to many other sweetened beverages.[1-3] And what's worse is that there is an increasingly robust body of research suggesting that sugar in our drinks is one of the most dangerous ways to consume added sugar.
Unfortunately, as a population we drink a lot of sugary beverages. One survey showed that 63% of young people and 49% of adults drink a sugar-sweetened beverage every day.
This contributes to the massive problem we have with excess sugar intake in America. The average American consumes the equivalent of about 17 teaspoons of sugar every single day, which is way more than the healthy amount.
When we drink sweetened beverages, we expose ourselves to more of the toxic effects of sugar, and we put our health at risk.
The dangers of consuming sugary drinks
The main problem with sugary drinks is that they provide you with so many calories and unhealthy added sugars, but virtually no beneficial nutrients.[2,3]
When we consume sugar in liquid form – like in a fruity punch, a can of soda, or a sweet tea – it doesn't contain other helpful nutrients like fiber. Without the fiber to slow digestion down, we digest the sugar in these drinks very, very quickly and that can overload our system and internal organs.
On top of that, these sugary drinks won't leave you satisfied or feeling full, so you still end up eating the same amount of solid foods to satisfy your appetite.[1,3] Drinking sugar-sweetened drinks is also linked to other unhealthy behaviors like smoking, not getting enough sleep, not exercising, and eating fast food.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are associated with weight gain and obesity. For example, research suggests that drinking one sugar-filled drink per day (and not changing your diet in any other way) could make you gain about five pounds in just one year.
In the end, sugary drinks are just empty calories and excess sugar that doesn't do your body any good – only harm.
Ultimately, drinking sugary beverages can increase your risk for serious conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, and gout. It can also have harmful effects on your bones and teeth.[3,4]
If you drink one 12 oz. soda per day, your risk for heart disease can increase by about one third. And if you drink one to two sugar-sweetened drinks each day, then you have a 26% higher risk of diabetes.
Fortunately, cutting back on sugary beverages can help to reduce your risk and get your health back on track. For example, if you replace one daily sugary beverage with water, coffee, or tea, your risk for diabetes can go down 2-10%.
Making healthier beverage choices to reduce your sugar intake
Want to cut back on sugar and get healthy? Then be careful about what you are drinking on a daily basis.
The first step is to cut out all highly-sweetened options like sodas, sports drinks, fruit juice, and more. But be warned that it's not just the obvious culprits you need to stay away from. Sugars can hide in a lot of seemingly safe options like lemonade, tea, and coffee (think frappuccinos, flavored lattes, and canned cold brews).[6,7] Alcoholic beverages also contain sugar – especially those that use syrups, sodas, juices, and other sweetened ingredients as mixers.
Luckily, you don't have to deprive yourself of something tasty to sip on. You just have to be more careful with what kinds of drinks you consume. Here's a guide of what to avoid and what to drink instead:
Sugary drinks to avoid
Healthy alternatives to try
Sweetened and flavored coffee drinks
Slushies and slurpees
Sugary cocktails and mixed alcoholic drinks
Sparkling water and sugar-free carbonated drinks
Water is truly the gold standard when it comes to drinks. Try carrying a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go so you don't end up thirsty and needing to quench your thirst with an unhealthy option when you are out and about.
If you are having trouble getting excited about water and other healthy beverage options, there are lots of creative ways to mix it up and appeal to your taste buds. To make water more interesting, add fresh slices of lemon, lime, orange, or cucumber. Try adding fresh herbs, too, like mint. If you crave the carbonation of a soda, try sparkling water with natural flavors added like lemon or lime instead. Mix in a light splash of 100% real fruit juice if necessary.
And as drinks are one of the highest sources of added sugars in our diets, then one of the easiest ways to cut back on sugar is to make better beverage choices.
Avoid all sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sports drinks, and fruity drinks. Watch out for tricky sources of hidden sugars that can be found in bottled teas, flavored coffee products, and mixed alcoholic drinks as well. Get in the habit of reading labels so that you really know what you are putting in your body and how much sugar is in your drink.
And whenever in doubt, reach for a glass of water instead!
SugarScience. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages. University of California San Francisco.
Drouin-Chartier JP, Zheng Y, Li Y, et al. Changes in Consumption of Sugary Beverages and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and Subsequent Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Results From Three Large Prospective U.S. Cohorts of Women and Men. Diabetes Care. 2019;42(12):2181-2189.
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