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March 5, 2013 at 1:46 PMComments: 4 Faves: 1

Hidden Sugars in Restaurant Meals

By Jessica Corwin MPH RDN More Blogs by This Author

When it comes to dining out, eating right can be a struggle. The bread is coated with butter, steamed veggies are drenched in oil, and sugar is often sprinkled into the least suspecting sauces - making seemingly healthy meals a diet disaster.

Not So Sweet

With salads and sandwiches alike often packing six teaspoons of sugar, many of us are meeting our limit within a single meal. Current dietary guidelines limit most Americans to 6-8 teaspoons (16-32 grams) of added sugars per day. However this is largely ignored, as the average adult consumes three times this amount with a whopping 22 teaspoons or 88 grams of added sugar each day – with teenagers surpassing this amount by another 12 teaspoons. In other words, we are consuming ½ to ¾ of an entire cup of sugar each day.

This high intake is not so sweet when it comes to health. Outside of widening waistlines through empty calories, sugar and other substitutes do nothing for us. Let’s say you grab a donut for breakfast, the sugar will be absorbed rapidly into your bloodstream, causing a surge of insulin to swoop in and deliver sugar into our cells for energy or, more commonly, into storage as fat. Once the sugar is removed, blood sugar levels quickly drop from high to low, resulting in an energy crash and hunger pangs. Leading you to crave another hit of sweets to feel better. Sugar creates a vicious cycle, the more you eat the more you want.

Making Informed Choices

Thankfully, in response to recent legislation, large chains are now mandated to make nutrition information available to consumers, allowing patrons to make smarter choices. Another perk? The nutrition facts often incent the chains themselves to rethink their menu, often resulting in smaller portions and fresher options. Options of which are evident by the mashed cauliflower and roasted spaghetti squash available at Ruby Tuesday’s or by the Corner Bakery Café’s 100 menu options under 600 calories.

Despite these efforts sugar laden choices remain and are often difficult to detect. Which is why I have done a bit of detective work for you, picking out my favorite low-sugar menu options to help guide you in the right direction when it comes to menu mayhem.  Read on for a few tips to reduce the less than sweet addition to your waistline:

  • Opt for oil and vinegar rather than salad dressings, as many are one-third sugar.
  • Choose avocado and mustard over ketchup or barbeque sauces.
  • Watch out when it comes to marinara or salsas. Did you know that many provide 3 teaspoons or more in a mere one-half cup?
  • Request plain iced-tea rather than the sweetened version, since sweet tea can contain a comparable amount of sugar to soda!
  • Choose water or club soda with a splash of citrus for a refreshing beverage without the added sugars.
  • Ordering PB&J? Request your jam be served on the side and stick to a single container. (Watch out for the type of PB used, as many contain added sugars.)

Since the amount of sugar is not always listed, keep an eye on the total carbohydrates. If you were diagnosed with diabetes, you would likely be limited to 45 grams total for the entire meal. And when you do catch a glimpse of the nutrition facts, just keep in mind that 1 teaspoon of sugar is equivalent to 4 grams of sugar. A small amount that quickly adds up!

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  • Sneaky sugar is what I call all those hidden sugars in restaurant meals and processed foods! It really is terrible. No wonder so many of us have, at some point, struggled with sugar addiction. Avocado and mustard are a couple of my favorites on a sandwich. I don't even miss mayo anymore. Delicious!

  • thanks Jessica for the tips. I find it hard to believe that in dried Cranberries (craisins) there is so much sugar. For some reason I thought they were dried cranberries but no they have 26g per 1/3 cup which is a serving size. That's equal to 6 1/2 teaspoons of sugar. I would never think about going to my sugar bowl and spoon 6 1/2 teaspoons into my mouth at a time. But I would eat a salad at a restaurant with cranberries on it and think nothing of it!

    I have a bag of these in my fridge just waiting to be put on a salad - now I will have to think it over! You know the saying "everything in moderation."

  • Avocado and a giant slice of a fresh tomato... not sure I could top a black bean burger with anything better! Also a big mustard fan, though I try to limit it as I can easily overdose on its high sodium content. It is tasty though, Christna!

  • Thankfully you can find dried cranberries and cherries without the added sugars and oils, Nancy. But Craisins and those sparkling raisins in Raisin Bran..? They are far from sugar free. Plus, as you noticed dried fruit is a a much more concentrated source of sugar - stripped of its filling water content, but still providing us with nutrients and fiber. Whenever possible the fresh or frozen form is best, but dried fruit makes a very sweet addition to baked goods, cereal, and trail mix!

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