Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases are on the minds of many Americans as awareness sweeps our media about how to avoid them. Aside for increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, the push for decreasing sugar and sodium (salt) in our diets has been one of the approaches to maintain health and weight.
I agree that added sugars and salts should be limited in our diets; however, recent trends in the nutrition industry have stated that using alternative salts and sugars are healthier … but are they?
Added sugars are items such as granulated white and brown sugars, maple syrup, agave syrup, honey, and high fructose corn syrup. It’s all over the news that we should avoid high fructose corn syrup – this is nothing new; but what has been popping up in blogs and other media is that there are “good” and “bad” sugars. Honey, date sugar, coconut sugar, and maple syrup have all been labeled as healthy alternatives to using table sugar or brown sugar, and of course the “evil” high fructose corn syrup. This is looking just at the added sugars (added by you at the table or by a manufacturer in processed foods). Although there may be some differences in how they are processed in the body, they ultimately get broken down to the simplest form of sugar in the body known as glucose and the result is the same ... excess added sugars are excess calories and may lead to weight gain and an unhealthy status. In fact, high fructose corn syrup comes away from studies with mixed results and is not as bad as it has been marketed as its composition is closely related to that of table sugar with almost equal parts fructose and glucose, but is commonly thought of as 100% fructose due to its name. If you plan on reducing sugars, I recommend not eliminating fruit intake which contain natural sugars of fructose, glucose, and sucrose. Fruit contain vitamins, minerals and fiber that you’d be missing which are essential in a healthy diet.
Let’s move on to salt. Table salt, sea salt, kosher salt, Himalayan salt: what’s the difference and is there one that does not contribute to hypertension and heart disease? Sea salt has been marketed as a healthier alternative to table salt, but don’t be fooled. Salt is salt and they all have comparable amounts of sodium per volume. The main differences in salts are texture, processing and even taste. Sea salt has very little processing involved and is made from the evaporation of salt water whereas table salt is derived from deposits underground. Table salt is processed to eliminate other minerals, but iodine is often added (an essential mineral) to help maintain thyroid health.
When deciding what salt or sugar to use to flavor your food it really boils down to texture and taste differences, however keeping them all to a minimum is best practice for good health. No matter the choice, added sugars are excess calories and added salts could lead to hypertension. Reducing or eliminating added sugars and salts is a great way to start on a healthier path, but remember that a healthy lifestyle comes in a package with an overall healthy diet with a variety of foods and physical activity. Just as our obesity epidemic is multi-faceted, so is being healthy. Not one factor alone is to blame or considered the cure, but small changes in habits could make big strides towards health.
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Kimberly Young, MS, RDN, LD, is the WIC Coordinator at Panhandle Health District and a graduate of the University of Idaho Dietetic program.