Building Better Habits: Understanding and managing sugar consumption

An employee reaches for a donut during her work day.

Welcome to LifeSpeak’s total wellbeing guide to building better habits!

Every week in January, this guide will tackle a different area of wellbeing and offer strategies to help you and your employees build the skills to support their continued personal and professional growth.

Healthy life skills are the foundation of a happy life. It would be easy if we could snap our fingers and suddenly have a consistent sleep routine or a nutritious diet. But we can’t. The good news is that forming a new habit isn’t impossible either. With the right support, anyone can do it.

Week 3: Sugar

We vilify many types of food.

From bread to dairy and meat to vegetable oil, all foods—even fruits and vegetables—are the enemies of some diets these days. But one food seems to attract more ire than the rest: sugar.

Despite its reputation, not all sugar is bad. As nutrition educator Janet Nezon says in her LifeSpeak video, Sugar: facts, fiction or fuel, sugar is a critical fuel source for our bodies.

Sugar is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which means it’s a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates come in many forms, like table sugar or starch from grains and sweet potatoes. Our bodies break down the various forms of sugar into glucose, and our cells use glucose to operate.

The problem, Nezon says, is consuming excess added sugar in processed and prepared foods. Our bodies convert excess sugar into fat rather than fuel. As fat builds, so does the risk of obesity, which in turn raises the risk of developing issues like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Recent studies show that the average North American consumes 20-22 teaspoons of added sugars a day—double the recommended amount. For added sugars, the Dietary Guidelines of America advise adults to limit consumption to 10% of daily calories. For a standard 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, 200 calories can come from added sugars—or about 12 teaspoons of added sugar a day. In a 15-year study, people whose daily diet contained 17-21% added sugars were 38% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than people whose diet contained 8% added sugars.

So the idea is not to eliminate sugar but to focus on where our sugar comes from and keep our consumption within a healthy range.

Three expert tips to reduce sugar consumption

No one is perfect, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over imperfect diets. But anyone can implement strategies to reduce their consumption of added sugars gradually.

Share the below tips from LifeSpeak experts with colleagues and friends to encourage healthier dietary decisions.

  1. Eat whole fruit and avoid juice.

One easy way to limit added sugars is to replace juice with fresh fruit or homemade smoothies. Labels might lead us to believe that juice contains all the nutritional value of fruit, but that is misleading.

In her LifeSpeak video Is pure fruit juice as healthy as eating a whole fruit?, Nezon says, “When you eat a fruit, you’re getting all the fiber and the filling qualities of that whole food, in addition to the calories and the vitamins and minerals.”

A glass of juice provides some of the vitamins of a whole fruit, but it also contains a lot of sugar and won’t make you feel full. If you have trouble motivating yourself to eat whole fruit, try a smoothie as a great alternative to juice. Smoothies retain more nutrition than juice while still giving you a sweet beverage to enjoy.

In his blog Smoothies, the real breakfast of champions?, fitness expert Tom Toth suggests four key ingredients for every smoothie:

  • Berries: They are full of antioxidants, plus fiber, and vitamin C.
  • Protein powder: This can help rebuild muscles after a workout. Optional for people who don’t lift weights.
  • Raw oatmeal: This provides a binding agent to thicken up smoothies. Raw oatmeal is full of beta-glucan, a type of fiber that makes you feel fuller.
  • Hemp hearts: They’re packed with protein, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids, along with micronutrients.


  1. Prepare your own snacks.

There’s nothing wrong with craving a snack, but the first question is: why?

Sometimes we snack because we’re bored. But other times, our body is legitimately telling us it’s hungry.

Once you’ve identified that you’re truly hungry, the key is to be careful about what you eat as a snack.

“Today, it’s turned out that there’s an entire category of food called snack foods,” Janet Nezon says. “There’s even a whole shelf or an aisle in the grocery store devoted to it. What do we find in that grocery store department? Lots of prepared and processed foods in shiny, sexy packages.”

The problem with a lot of snack food, she explains, is that they are very low in fiber. That means we digest them quickly and get a sugar spike, but we don’t feel full.

Preparing our own snacks means we can not only save money but reduce added sugars and increase our consumption of nutrients, protein, healthy fats, and fiber. Nezon approaches snack preparation the same way she approaches meal prep: Use the same kinds of foods you would use when making a meal ensures that snacks stay healthy.

In her LifeSpeak Blog, A guide to healthy snacks for back to school, nutritionist Nishta Saxena says the ideal snack is made from this equation: some protein + fiber + a little fat. Snacks that meet these requirements might include a combination of hummus, Greek yogurt, boiled egg, nuts, and seeds, along with whole grain crackers, pita, and fruits and veggies.

  1. Read labels.

One final trick is to avoid processed sauces and soups—or at least read the labels very carefully before purchasing them. Nezon cautions people to be careful with foods like barbecue sauce, tomato sauce, and processed soups.

“I don’t know about you, but grams are a little bit hard to picture,” Nezon says. “Teaspoons are much easier to understand. So here’s some simple math. Look at the number of grams of sugar on that label and divide by four because every four grams is one teaspoon of sugar. Do the math. You might be surprised.”

We wouldn’t stir ten teaspoons of sugar into a glass of water and drink it, but that’s what we do when we consume a can of soda or many other types of processed foods.

Looking for more physical wellness support?

These are just a few tips anyone can leverage to reduce unhealthy sugar consumption and improve physical wellness.

Wellbeats, a product of LifeSpeak Inc., helps organizations provide even more physical wellness support to their employees with on-demand, expert-led fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness classes for all ages, interests, and ability levels.

Learn more about Wellbeats.

Simple strategies to build better habits in all areas!

Check back here every week for more strategies to build better habits. This guide will tackle mental health, physical wellbeing, family caregiving, and substance use support.

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