Eating too much sugar is terrible for our bodies, which as you might remember was the subject of last month’s blog. Scientists say that excess sugar turns to fat in our liver making it a major cause of obesity, as well as diabetes and heart disease. Nonetheless many people are resigned to their sugar habit. “I know it’s bad for me,” several Bar Method students told me when we were discussing the subject, “but I’m just addicted to sugar.” I get it! If you’re a sweet tooth, cutting down the sugar in your diet is not easy, especially when it comes to pervasiveness of sweet snacks like Jamba Juice, energy bars, flavored yogurts, “health” juices, and just about anything from Starbucks.

Michael cooking July 2014 edit 2 small

My husband Michael making dinner

Don’t get me wrong!  My intent is not to scold people who eat a lot of sugar (which is most of us). In this blog, I want to explore the possibility that snacks could be both delicious and low in sugar. It would be well worth the effort, because we now know that eating low sugar foods makes it easier for us to lose weight, gives us increased energy, and is kind to our internal organs. Unfortunately, this project was going to be easier said than done due to my culinary skills being pretty much zero. My husband and I have been together for five years, and whenever it’s been my turn to prepare a meal, I’ve chosen a reasonably healthy restaurant and ordered takeout. Therefore, in order to give you some authentic healthy snack ideas, I reached out to the local community of nutrition experts and was fortunate to receive an offer of help from Norae Ferrera, RD, who gave me five recipes for low sugar snacks. Norae is a San Francisco-based dietitian with the American Dietetic Association and, like most of her peers, wholeheartedly endorses a low sugar diet. In fact, she made sure to let me know that experts (such as the American Heart Association) do not recommend a diet of up to 10% sugar.

Norae Ferrara, RD

Norae Ferrara, RD

“Actually,” she said, “the true recommendation is NONE. 10% is an upper intake limit but no one actually needs added sugar. There is no physiological need for it, as our bodies can break down complex carbohydrates to create the exact sugars we do need. It is in no way essential in our diet. Carbohydrates, yes, but not sugars, per se.” Norae’s endorsement of a NO-added sugar diet made me all the more curious to find out what her healthy snacks would taste like, so I decided to try them out.  I went to four stores to find all the ingredients, not minding the effort since I figured I was making up for decades of NOT shopping for food. Once I had everything, I made the snacks. Then, like a judge on “Master Chef” (a show my husband watches), I tasted each one. The following five snacks from Norae all contain less than 300mg of sodium, less than 5g of sugar, and less than 250 calories. I’ve ranked them from five to one, ending with my favorite.

Healthy snacks ingredients July 2014 small

The ingredients

Coconut milk and fruit smoothie

Coconut milk and fruit smoothie

Snack #5: Smoothie: 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk, 1/4 cup raspberries, 1/2 cup strawberries, 1 scoop pure rice protein powder and ice as desired: I’d never heard of rice-based protein powder and was eager to try it. Soy-based protein powder, the kind you find at Whole Foods, has always been hard for me to digest, and I love the taste of rice. Even so, I found this snack to be bitter, particularly so when I bit down on the raspberry seeds. My guess is that the raspberries were the cause of the bitterness, so a few days later, I tried the same recipe with half a frozen banana and no ice. This blend was delicious. However, it wasn’t the original recipe, so this snack remains bottom on my list.

Tuna in oil on whole wheat

Tuna in oil on whole wheat

Snack #4: 2oz light tuna canned in oil, 1 slice sprouted wheat bread (the kind with 0g sugar and minimal sodium) This combination tasted good but seemed simply like a tuna fish sandwich. The oil in the tuna did add flavor and fullness. I plan to further experiment with the tuna on different whole breads.

Icelandic yogurt and almonds

Icelandic yogurt and almonds

Snack #3: 5oz plain Icelandic yogurt with 20 unsalted Almonds  In preparation for trying this snack, had to find out what in the world is “Icelandic yogurt.” It turns out to be a type of yogurt, not a brand, just as Greek yogurt is. According to Wikipedia, Icelandic yogurt originated in Iceland and is also called “Skyr.” It is strained yogurt made with skimmed milk and has a “slightly sour dairy flavor with a hint of residual sweetness.” After going to a few stores, I found some Icelandic yogurt at Whole Foods and bought two brands, Siggi’s and Småri. Indeed, this yogurt is thick and rich like Greek yogurt. Beyond that, the two brands differed. Siggi’s was a bit sour, while “Småri” was creamy and did have that “residual sweetness,” surprising considering that this stuff has no fat and just the natural sugars from the skim milk! With the almonds it tasted delicious.

Hummus and vegies

Hummus and veggies

Snack #2: 1/3 cup hummus with sliced sweet bell peppers, carrots and/or cucumbers They even add sugar to hummus these days, but Safeway did have a sugar-free brand without a huge list of added chemicals. The sliced sweet bell pepper was my favorite dipping veggie. Of course this snack is a mainstay of parties. Even so, it worked for me as a non-party-day treat.

Strawberries and almond butter!

Strawberries and almond butter

Snack #1: 1/2 cup sliced strawberries and 2 Tbsp unsalted natural almond or peanut butter Even at my age, new experiences are possible, and this snack gave me one. The strawberries cut the stickiness of the almond butter (which was unsalted with no other ingredients), and the almond butter added a decadent richness to the strawberries. Uuumm!! As a group, I appreciated these snacks because they were all filling, especially the last one. The little bit of almond butter stuck to my ribs for hours, causing me not to think about food until dinner when I started to feel pleasantly hungry. If you get a chance to try these low sugar snacks for yourself, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did 🙂 Healthy snacks Burr collage


Fed Up May 2014 2

One of the children profiled in “Fed Up”

See the new movie “Fed Up,” narrated and co-produced by Katie Couric. Even if you’ve kept up with advances in our understanding of nutrition, “Fed Up” will change your view of what is, and what isn’t, healthy food and why our nation has a weight problem. The causes may be different from what you thought. For one, kids are not getting fat just because they watch TV and play video games. The real reason is right in front of our noses, and we’ve been seeing it and not seeing it. Fed Up will make you hit the side of your head and say, “oooh, right.”

I remember when the mass weight gain started in the mid 70s. I was in my 20s living in New York City. Back in college in the 60s, I’d followed Adele Davis, the top diet guru of her day, who advocated a balanced diet of meat, veggies and whole grains with no processed foods. Then suddenly Adele Davis was out, replaced by a new, exciting advance in nutrition: food with its fat content reduced or removed altogether! Everyone, including myself, believed that the new low and non-fat foods would make it easy to be thin. We rushed to buy whatever had on its label “reduced fat” or “fat free!”


Result of sugar added into our diet in the Mid-70s

There was, however, a catch that we weren’t aware of. As one nutritionist interviewed in “Fed Up” explains, food with its fat reduced or removed tastes terrible. To solve this problem the food industry added sugar to the products from which they’d removed fat. If we knew this at the time, we paid it no mind. Sugar is innocuous, we thought. It’s what you put in your coffee. So we started innocently consuming more sugar. Since then, we Americans have doubled our daily sugar intake. The result, as the chart above shows, was an upsurge in overweight and obesity rates starting right then in the mid-70s. It was as if a shot had been fired.

Why does sugar cause us to gain weight? Because when more sugar than we need flows into our digestive system, our liver can’t metabolize it as energy, so it converts the sugar into fat. Too much sugar over-stresses the liver similar to the way excess alcohol does. Sugar then does its damage, organ by organ, including to your pancreas, your heart, your digestive system, your immune system and your brain.

From "Fed Up," how our liver turns sugar into fat

From “Fed Up,” how our liver turns sugar into fat

These stresses cause diseases, foremost among them heart disease, diabetes and of course, obesity and all its health consequences. Sugar causes obesity because it doesn’t satisfy your appetite and doesn’t nourish you. Instead, it lowers your energy level, and makes you feel starving all the time. Sugar has been proved (in research studies on rats) to be more addicting than cocaine, and when you’re hooked on sugar, you HAVE to eat, and you’re going to chose to eat more sugar, only to become more endlessly more hungry. The obese kids profiled in Fed Up are not at fault because they lack will power. They’re obese because they started life with baby bottles of fruit juice, kid’s cereals, pop tarts and soft drinks. Sugar had them by the throat before they knew what was happening.

Green Machine contains 28 grams of sugar.

Green Machine contains 28 grams of sugar.

How much sugar is okay to eat every day? The American Heart Association (the ADA) recommends that 10% of your diet consist of sugar. That’s about 20 grams for women and 36 grams for men. One Coke has 40 grams of sugar. An Odwalla juice and a “Naked” (brand) Green Machine with “NO SUGAR ADDED” have 28 grams of sugar each. Starbucks “Evolution Defense Up” juice has 34 grams of sugar. Today I was at the supermarket and bought a seemingly good-for-you meal called “Simply Asian” noodles. At home I looked at the package and discovered that Simply Asian noodles contains 16 grams of added sugar, ¾ of my recommended daily intake. Don’t get me started on energy bars (candy), gluten-free energy bars (same bad-for-you candy), dried fruit snacks, “natural” cereals, and all-fruit diets. To your liver the sugar in these foods is identical. What your liver can’t metabolize, it turns into fat.

In 1770, the average American ate about 9 grams of sugar a day. Today the average American consumes 186.4 grams a sugar a day, 20 times more. The miserable, trapped obese kids profiled in “Fed Up” were willing to be in the movie to show the world the result of this diet.

Me in 2012 with a sugary drink

Me in 2012 with a sugary drink

But if you’re healthy in other ways, can’t your body deal with moderately more sugar? Well, I can tell you that my body couldn’t in spite of all the exercise I do. Two years ago on this blog, I showed a photo of myself walking out of Starbucks with a non-fat Chai latte and another photo of my frig with stacked Activa yogurt. I didn’t get fat, but my looks and energy level suffered from all the sugar in my diet. My skin became dry and dull, a disquieting bulge of fat appeared around my middle, and I became more and more tired and achy. Last year, I tried switching to a lower sugar diet. I gave up Chai lattes and switched to unsweetened coffee and fresh fruit such as bananas and pears. My skin became smoother, and my waist trimmed down. However, I still battled fatigue during the day. The problem was that I was grabbing sweet pastries for breakfast when I was in a hurry, plus eating two bananas a day. Many of today’s common fruits tend to be sugary because humans cultivated them over centuries to be more and more sweet. Bananas, it turns out, are one of the fruits that is highest in sugar, 18 grams a cup — a fact to bear in mind if you are trying to eat healthy by throwing heaps of these fruits into a juicer – even if you add in some green stuff — and gulping down its contents. Doing so could assault your system with 500% of its daily recommended dose of sugar in a few moments!

After seeing “Fed Up,” I gave up bananas and avoided sweet foods altogether, and what a difference it’s made! Almost right away, my energy level increased, I found I needed less sleep, I didn’t feel hungry, food tasted better, I was stronger in class, and I noticed to my amazement that, even at age 67, my skin looked rosier.

Simply Asian Noodles nutrition label missing "daily value" for sugar

Simply Asian Noodles nutrition label missing “daily value” for sugar

Regardless, the food industry is not about to take sugar back out of all these foods. Big food producers, among them Pepsico and Coca-Cola, want to keep us addicted. Such companies now supply more than half our public schools with fast foods for school lunches, and food industry lobbyists have forced the government to delete the “daily values” for sugar on nutrition labels. Look at the next processed food you buy and notice that the “daily value” percentage for sugar (how many grams you should eat of this type of nutrient in a day) is mysteriously missing. Lobbyists also won on getting pizza and Ketchup categorized as vegetables, and a 20% sugar diet – not 10% as recommended by nutritionists – cited by the government as healthy. Today, 80% of processed foods contains added sugar, much of it disguised by obscure sounding aliases on nutrition labels such as “Xylose,” “Lactose,” “Maltodextrin,” “Sorghum,” and others.

The result:

  • 64% of Americans are now overweight or obese. By mid-century, half of all Americans will be obese if trends continue.
  • Since 2000, obesity has overtaken tobacco use as our country’s leading cause of death.
  • In the 1960s, type 2 diabetes in children was pretty much unheard of. There are now hundreds of thousands of cases of of this disease among children.
  • Rise in world obesity smallIn six years, 20% of all health care spending will be on obesity related diseases and conditions.
  • World obesity has risen over 7% in the last 23 years.
  • Americans are the fattest people in the world.
  • Fast food, including soft drinks, is served in more than half of American schools.
  • Our kids are the first generation in 200 years who will live shorter lives than their parents.

“Fed Up” tried to on an upbeat note, but it’s hard for me to be optimistic about the world acting on its message any time soon. Unlike tobacco, sugar is everywhere, and it’s being pitched to us from all sides. My mother, who grew up during the Depression, got an orange in her stocking every Christmas as a treat. She always believed that people get fat because they have no will power but now wants to see the movie and is open to changing her mind. Nonetheless, many people who have seen “Fed Up,” reviewers included, aren’t taking the message seriously. One critic, who admits to being overweight, called the movie “slick” and said, “we’ve heard it all before.” I’d love to be wrong about the poor odds that we’ll start to change our eating habits. Maybe in my lifetime I’ll go to the supermarket and be surprised to find a wide assortment of processed foods that say on their label: “less than 5% of the AHA’s recommended daily serving of sugars.”  That will be the day.

Next month: Healthy snacks that are low in sugar