Stop eating so much sugar. Seriously.

The World Health Organization would really like it if you put down that soda.

In March, the United Nations’ health agency came out with new recommendations for sugar consumption that might ruin your next ice cream sundae. Citing research from 9,000 studies – because we needed 9,000 studies and an international coalition of health experts to tell us that Big Gulps are not a good idea – WHO dropped its recommended daily sugar intake to 5 percent of total calories consumed. (The previous recommendation had been 10 percent of total calories consumed.)

Under the 5-percent guideline, a person who consumes 2,000 calories a day should limit sugar intake to 25 grams. To give you some context, a 12-ounce can of Coke has 39 grams of sugar, which puts you well over your daily recommended limit before you dip a single French fry into that sweet ketchup, or consider the sugar in the cereal, milk, bagel or juice you had for breakfast.

Hilton Head dietician Mary Cran says sugar isn’t the true villain here; we are.

“Our body needs a healthy balance of sugars from milk, fruit and whole grains. But most Americans prefer empty calorie products that have little to no nutritional value. Soda, cakes, candy and cupcakes have loads of sugar and calories but no vitamins and minerals,” Cran said. “Excessive sugar and weight gain are toxic to the body, causing lethal diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and metabolism irregularities.”

Sugar

That’s exactly why WHO is waving its red flag a little higher; the organization is particularly concerned about diabetes and tooth decay, as well as the rising cost of health care and dental care in Western countries.

Dr. Kevin Fader of Island Family Dental says besides brushing twice daily – including the all-important bedtime brushing and fluoride rinse – the biggest thing we can do to prevent tooth decay is to choose our foods wisely. For instance, we should only eat food that’s actually food.

“I love Swedish fish, but I eat it and think, ‘I just ate plastic,’ ” he said.

If you’re craving something sweet, Fader says your teeth will thank you if you choose a small piece of dark chocolate over, say, Gummy Bears. “That stuff is the worst,” he says. “It should be banned.”

Banning sticky, chemical-laden sugary snacks is highly unlikely, given the fact that we seem to continually crave it. Research has shown that sugar has addictive properties, which is why one can open a bag of Oreos and eat nine of them without even noticing. Nine Oreos, by the way, have 42 grams of sugar.

The first step to limiting sugar consumption, Cran says, is to educate yourself about healthy portion sizes. (Hint: Nine Oreos is not a healthy portion size.)

“I think most Americans overeat cookies and breads and pasta. Restaurants definitely serve more than one portion of meats, pasta and rice. A 12-ounce steak you could have for three meals,” she says. “There are healthy sugars, or carbohydrates, found in pasta, rice, potatoes and grains.  The trick is to know your portion size so your body doesn’t convert the extra grams of sugar into extra pounds.”

Besides being smarter about portion sizes, Cran says we could stand to be a little more savvy about how we “reward” ourselves for a job well done, or just a hard day done.

“I believe rewarding with food is not healthy because we tend to over-reward ourselves with empty-calorie foods high in sugar and fat like ice cream, cookies and candy that can easily add weight gain, cause inflammation and develop into more serious health conditions,” she says.

Instead, Cran suggests rewarding yourself with favorite activities like a manicure, a movie or a day trip to Savannah or Charleston. “Your body will thank you in the long run, and it will add years to your life.”

Tips to cut down on sugar:

  • Learn to recognize and measure proper portion sizes of foods like fruit, milk, juice and grains.
  • Don’t eat anything with sugar or syrup in the first five ingredients. The quantity of ingredients goes from highest to lowest.  Familiarize yourself with other sugar “names,” including corn syrup and all the “-ose” words (fructose, maltose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, lactose …).
  • Choose fresh fruit instead of canned or dried whenever possible.
  • Plan and prepare meals in advance so you minimize the risk of grabbing an unhealthy food or overindulging.
  • Instead of soda, opt for sparkling water with fresh ingredients like lemon and lavender oil or lime and mint or peppermint oil.

By Robyn Passante