Here’s the thing: Sugar itself isn’t inherently bad. It gives you energy and occurs naturally in many healthy foods, like fruits, veggies, and dairy, says Jen Bruning, MS, RD, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
The problem is when you overdo it on *added* sugar — the kind found in processed foods and drinks. Consistently consuming too much can contribute to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes; mess with your mood; and even give you more wrinkles. Plus, eating too much added sugar may exacerbate inflammation — which is particularly important when you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or other forms of inflammatory arthritis.
How Added Sugar May Worsen Arthritis Symptoms
Consuming too much processed sugar causes the body to release pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines, says Bruning. Cytokine levels are already high when you have inflammatory arthritis; that chronic inflammation is what causes pain, swelling, and stiffness in your joints.
Overindulging in high-sugar foods also stokes your appetite and can cause weight gain. “Added sugar contributes calories with no nutritional value,” explains Joy Dubost PhD, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and food scientist in the New York City area. “When you’re overweight or obese, that fatty tissue produces hormones that can put you into more of an inflammatory state.”
In fact, a review of research found obesity can lead to more active and severe rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis. Extra weight also puts more pressure and stress on the joints, which can worsen the pain and stiffness associated with inflammatory arthritis, say experts.
Another effect of too much sugar in your diet: too many harmful compounds called AGEs (advanced glycation end products) form in the blood, which also contribute to chronic inflammation.
How to Stop Eating So Much Sugar
You can’t cut sugar out completely, but you can trim your sugar intake — and possibly help improve your arthritis symptoms — with these tips:
1. Prioritize your sweets
If you can’t live without a double dose of sugar in your morning coffee, but don’t necessarily need a heavy dessert after dinner, drop dessert from your diet first, suggests Bruning. Then wean yourself from two sugars in your coffee to one, then to none or an acceptable non-nutritive sweetener. “Making slow changes that you can live with will help you stick with them in the long run,” says Bruning.
2. Say no to soda
Sugar-sweetened beverages are the biggest contributors of sugar in our American diets, says Dubost. A 20-ounce bottle of a popular soda brand contains 16 teaspoons of added sugar and 240 calories. Research shows that regularly consuming sugar-sweetened drinks is linked to weight gain and obesity, which can worsen arthritis symptoms. And a small study found that drinking the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar from soda per day led to an increase in inflammatory markers.
3. And go easy on coffee concoctions
That’s because a medium pumpkin spice latte from one popular coffee house has more than 12 teaspoons of sugar and 420 calories; a medium frozen mocha swirl from another chain contains about 35 teaspoons of sugar and 730 calories. That’s right — in one drink. Some flavored syrups are all sugar, says Dubost. Unsweetened tea and coffee are your healthiest options, she adds, but if you prefer flavor, consider the syrups made with non-nutritive sweeteners.
4. Look for “added sugars” on food labels
You never really know how much sugar a given food has until you read the nutrition facts label and ingredients list. Seemingly non-sugary foods like crackers, nut butters, or frozen dinners can have a lot more hidden added sugar than you might realize. Reading labels can give you a sense of what’s in the foods you eat regularly so you can start comparing.
You’ll start to see the new FDA-mandated nutrition facts panels on more packaged foods, which includes a separate line for grams of “added sugar” per serving. (Other changes: calories per serving and serving size will be bigger and bolder.) Companies have until January 1, 2020 to change their labels, though. If your favorite foods haven’t made the switch yet, you can check the manufacturer’s website for the info, suggest Dubost; or look for a SmartLabel, where you can scan a QR or digital code on the package and get detailed information on the product.
5. Or scan the ingredients list
Ingredients in a given food are listed by weight; if there’s sugar in the top three, says Dubost, you know the product contains a lot. There are at least 61 different names for sugar listed on food labels. Some common ones include sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup, as well as cane sugar, dextrose, invert sugar, maltose, and rice syrup, among others. Honey and molasses may be more “natural,” but they still count as added sugar, says Dubost.
6. Downsize sugary food portions
Opt for one scoop of ice cream, not a sundae; a bite-size piece of chocolate, not a whole bar; a small flavored coffee, not the supersize cup. All of these are simple switches that allow you to satisfy your sweet tooth while you still cut back on sugar, suggests Bruning.
7. Consider your condiments
One tablespoon of ketchup has nearly a teaspoon of sugar; the same amount of barbecue sauce has more than a teaspoon. Look for brands with no added sugar, suggests Dubost; or flavor your foods with fresh salsa, yellow mustard, herbs or spices, which tend to be very low in sugar. Another surprise source of sugar: jarred sauces.
8. Swap in fruit
Fruit is naturally sweet, and as part of a balanced diet, your body can process the natural sugars in fruit without causing an increase in inflammation, says Bruning. Opt for an all-fruit spread on whole grain instead of jams and jellies with added sugar, for example. Or add slices of bananas or fresh strawberries to sweeten your oatmeal instead of brown sugar. Frozen or canned fruit works too, but choose fruit canned in water or natural juice, not syrup.
9. Skip sugary cereals
These can rank among the worst when it comes to added sugar: One popular kid cereal has 16 grams of sugar in just one cup — that which you might expect. But healthier-sounding granola can have even more. Check the label and ingredients list — whole grain should be first, says Dubost.
10. Eat full-fat foods
You see “low fat” on a label and assume a food is healthier, but these products often contain the same amount of calories and usually more sugar than their full-fat counterparts. That’s because when companies remove fat, they often use more sugar or salt to make the food taste better. Case in point: yogurt. A 6-ounce container of plain yogurt contains nearly 8 grams (or 2 teaspoons) of sugar; the low-fat version has almost 12 grams.