SmartPoints and Sugar

In an earlier post, I said I would do a post about the healthy eating aspects of Weight Watchers new program using SmartPoints.  Actually, I plan to do three posts.  One on sugar.  One on saturated fat.  And a third on the other aspects of healthy eating.

When I posted earlier about whether healthy eating must be restrictive, I talked about some of the objections I’ve seen to SmartPoints.  One of the main ones is some people feeling that the new WW program is too restrictive and too much like a diet.  I have seen this mentioned most often in connection with sugar.

Sugar

 

There is no doubt at all that Weight Watchers has devised SmartPoints to discourage us from eating too much added sugar.  While foods with added sugar are not forbidden on the plan, they are expensive enough that we are much more limited in how much of that kind of food we can eat on SmartPoints as opposed to PointsPlus.  And, this is no accident.

Weight Watchers has devised SmartPoints so that they are not just based upon calories.  Certainly, calories play a part in the SmartPoints value.  But, protein lowers the SmartPoints value while sugar and saturated fat raise it.  And, they raise it by a lot. In the Beyond the Scale Plan Guide, Weight Watchers lays it out, pointing out that the primary focus with PointsPlus was the “number on the scale, not the foods that fuel you.”  Weight Watchers makes it clear that SmartPoints are designed to help us “eat more protein and less sugar and saturated fat, for an overall healthier life.”

Weight Watchers is no longer just about losing weight.  Losing weight is a big part of Weight Watchers, but eating healthier is now also front and center. (And, yes, of course, if you have special dietary needs or have health considerations, you should surely consult with your doctor about what is right for you).

So, why focus on sugar?  Is it that Weight Watchers just doesn’t want us to enjoy chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, and cake?  Why penalize sugar so much?  It is certainly the case that many high sugar foods have doubled or almost doubled in points value.  Is sugar so bad for you that the heavy penalty of SmartPoints is warranted?

It often seems in nutrition that experts don’t agree on anything.  I’ve certainly seen many foods where one expert loves it and another hates it.  Some promote low carb diets, while other promote low fat diets.  It is easy to simply give up out of sheer confusion.

But, in reality, it is an illusion to think that the experts don’t agree on anything.  True experts do agree on many aspects of nutrition.  And, while there might be doubt about some things, most reputable experts advocate lowering consumption of added sugar.

At a recent Oldways Finding Common Ground conference, a group of experts outlined a consensus on certain things about eating healthy, including stating the following regarding the recommendations in the 2015 Dietary Guideline’s Advisory Committee:

The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains. Additional strong evidence shows that it is not necessary to eliminate food groups or conform to a single dietary pattern to achieve healthy dietary patterns. Rather, individuals can combine foods in a variety of flexible ways to achieve healthy dietary patterns, and these strategies should be tailored to meet the individual’s health needs, dietary preferences and cultural traditions. 

Note, the consensus that a healthy diet is low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks.  What is notable about the group of experts listed is that they come from different viewpoints and there are areas where I’m sure they don’t agree.  But, they do agree about eating less sugar.

And, it isn’t just them.  The American Heart Association on its website discusses sugar at length and recommends that women eat no more than about 6 teaspoons of sugar a day.  That is about 100 calories, which works out to only 25g of added sugar each day.  The recommendation for men is 150 calories, which is about 9 teaspoons, or 37.5g of sugar. And the reality is that most of the sources of added sugar in our diet are from foods that few people would extol as being healthy. The American Heart Association points out that the major sources are regular soft drinks, sugars, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, fruit drinks, dairy desserts and milk products and other grains with added sugars.

So, why does the American Heart Association care about sugar?  That would be because too much added sugar adds to your risk of dying from heart disease.  The AHA discusses a 2014 study that found that “those who got 17 to 21 percent of their calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those who consumed 8 percent of their calories from added sugar.”

You might wonder how common it is for people to eat a lot of added sugar.  Unfortunately it is all too common.  Remember, the AHA recommends no more than 100 calories a day (6 teaspoons) of added sugar for women and no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) of added sugar for men.  Basically, a teaspoon of sugar has about 4g of sugar.  The AHA indicates that according to the 2014 study, most adults in the United States eat about 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day.  That would work out to about 88g of added sugar, or 352 calories or so.  At a calorie intake of 2000 calories, that would be about 18% of calories from added sugar.  That is a lot.  Way above the recommendations for men or women.

The bottom line is that most people in the United states eat too much added sugar and it is just not good for us.  And, it isn’t just that it raises the risk of heart disease.  Some other potential health problems from sugar include poor nutrition (added sugar adds calories with no nutritional value and can crowd out foods that are better for us), weight gain (which can lead to other health problems), increased triglycerides, and tooth decay.

One of the problems with sugar is that it does all this stuff that is bad for us, but a lot of the damage to our health isn’t all that visible when it happens.  I’ve sometimes seen an attitude something like this:  I’m healthy, so I don’t really need to limit my sugar.  I would limit it if I had health problems, but I don’t.  The problem with this attitude is that sugar can be adding to your health risks without you even being aware of it.

I can give a personal example. I know that Type 2 diabetes has become increasingly common.  I knew, vaguely, about the concept of insulin resistance and knew that prediabetes existed.  But, I didn’t have diabetes and had no idea that I had any difficulty with my own blood sugar levels.  Then, a year ago, as part of routine blood work I had my A1C level tested and found out that it tested in the prediabetic range (although my fasting blood glucose and tryclerides were normal).  At that point, I systematically began checking my blood glucose levels at an hour and at 2 hours after eating.  What I found out was that some carbohydrates tended to spoke my blood sugar to a higher level than is normal.  And, in fact, I found that foods high in added sugar really tended to do that.

For example, I used to love eating a Cinnamon Crunch Bagel from Panera.  From my way of thinking, I ate it in moderation.  I had lost almost 50 pounds at that point, having a Cinnamon Crunch bagel sometimes when I went to Panera’s.  I didn’t always have one and I never had more than one.  I always counted the 11 PointsPlus (420 calories) from it.  I felt fine, absolutely fine, after eating it.  From the standpoint of a Weight Watchers member eating on PointsPlus this was an OK food in moderation, as I saw it.  Sure, I might think it wasn’t so OK for someone who was diabetic or had any blood sugar problem, but until I had that higher than normal A1C result, I had no reason to think it was a problem for me.  I actually did limit sugars quite a bit at the time, but that was more from an empty calories standpoint.

What I found out, though, was that I am insulin resistant and eating a Cinnamon Crunch Bagel (with its 31g of sugar) spikes my blood sugar to a level that isn’t normal and isn’t good for me.  And, with an elevated A1C level, that wasn’t something I wanted.  I haven’t had a Cinnamon Crunch bagel since I found how much it spiked my blood sugar.  A year later, through reducing the sugar that I eat and finding out what foods spikes my blood sugar, I’ve reduced my A1C level to a normal 5.4.

Theoretically, my blood sugar is normal now and I could spend 19 SmartPoints on a Cinnamon Crunch Bagel.  I am allowed to do it on Weight Watchers. The reality, though, is that I’m still insulin resistant and if I ate it today it would still raise my blood sugar.  At 31g of sugar, it is just too much sugar to eat in a day, let alone in one serving. Yes, I do still eat some foods with added sugar but I am careful about it and really limit portion size.

The horrifying thing to me is that a year ago I had no idea that I had any difficulty at all with my blood sugar.  And, that is the problem with thinking that you don’t need to limit sugar because you are healthy.  The person who is healthy today and eating a high sugar diet may not be healthy tomorrow and part of that may be due to the high sugar diet.  And, even if you think you are healthy, the sugar may be silently damaging your body.

Look, I like some things with sugar.  I like some of them a lot.  I quit buying cookies for my house because I found it too difficult to resist eating them in an appropriate amount.  I love chocolate chip cookies, Butterfingers, chocolate cake, and Cinnamon Crunch bagels, among many other things.  I get that the draw of foods with sugar in them is that some of them taste really, really good.  And, I at times found it hard to eat them in a reasonable amount.

But, I never kidded myself that they were really good choices to make.  I never really thought that Weight Watchers thought they were the best choice.  Maybe that is because I started Weight Watchers when it was an exchange diet.  Yes, I could eat all those foods.  But, they had to be eaten out of optional calories and I only had a few hundred of those each week.  I could certainly have a piece of chocolate cake on my birthday and stay on program.  But, I couldn’t have a piece of chocolate cake every day.

I could have a piece of chocolate cake every day on PointsPlus.  There were times that, staying totally within my points, I had a Cinnamon Crunch bagel on one day and then had another the next day.  And, I could that on the same week I also had frozen yogurt, and a piece of chocolate.

I never thought that was the healthiest way to eat, but the fact was that Weight Watchers PointsPlus allowed it and didn’t really do much to steer me away from it.  Sure, I knew that wasn’t the best food, but given a choice of spending 11 points on a Cinnamon Crunch Bagel or something “healthy” to eat, all too often that bagel would win.

Weight Watchers doesn’t want us to eat that way anymore.  Have that piece a cake occasionally?  OK.  But at 23 SmartPoints for a piece of chocolate cake commercial,  most of us won’t be having it very often and that is what Weight Watchers wants.

I know.  Some reading this will say that they don’t really want Weight Watchers to guide their food choices.  They don’t want Weight Watchers telling them not to eat high sugar.  They may see that as Weight Watchers imposing its view of nutrition on them and may feel that really isn’t something that should be within Weight Watchers purview.  On the one hand, I can totally understand that point of view.  It irritated me in the PointsPlus day that Weight Watchers penalized all dietary fat through the PointsPlus formula.  Since I personally eat healthy nuts on most days, I felt that Weight Watchers was imposing a view of fat that was outdated.  And, while I didn’t do it, there were times I thought about counting nuts as if they were some food of similar calories, but less fat.  I didn’t do it, but I sure thought about it.  So, yes, I can understand disagreeing with Weight Watchers on nutrition.  I can even understand agreeing with Weight Watchers on what is healthy eating, but still feeling that Weight Watchers should stick with weight loss.

I saw someone comment earlier on the Weight Watchers message boards that SmartPoints seems like a step backwards.  In a way, I understand that point.  This is clearly going back to a more restrictive way of eating.  This is looser than it was on exchanges since we can use our SmartPoints on high sugar treats.  But, without a doubt it is more restrictive than PointsPlus given the penalty to high sugar foods.  But, I have long felt that a problem with PointsPlus was that you could eat too much junk food so long as you stayed within your points. I see SmartPoints as more of a return to form.

If there is one area where experts really do seem to agree it is in the area of added sugar.  We may feel that SmartPoints is more restrictive than PointsPlus because of how it penalizes sugar and saturated fat, and we would be right to feel that way.  It is more restrictive.  There is no question about it.  But, it is more restrictive because Weight Watchers is attempting to guide us to making healthier eating choices.  And guiding us to eat less added sugar isn’t one that is really controversial.

You might raise the issue of what about natural sugars that are in some foods and get a high SmartPoints value nonetheless.  It is true that most of the concerns about sugar relate to added sugars and not those naturally in foods.  To some extent, Weight Watchers deals with this by having most fruits and vegetables be zero point foods.  And, as of Beyond the Scale, you can have such foods in the recipe builder and they will not go toward the point count, unless the food is blended or processed.

But, yes, there are some foods that you might eat in a restaurant or buy in a store that are high in natural sugar.  For example, frozen vegetable dishes that have a light sauce may be higher in points now because of the sugar in the vegetables.  If you were making the dish through a recipe in the recipe builder, the vegetables wouldn’t be part of the point count but they are when in a package in a grocery store or a meal at a restaurant.

Here is where practicality comes into it.  Right now, in the United States, food labels includes all sugars, both natural and added.  As a result, to come up with a point count, Weight Watchers basically has to treat sugar on the food label the same whether it is natural or added.  The United States has proposed to have added sugar listed on labels.  When and if that comes to pass, I would expect Weight Watchers to eventually switch to counting added sugar in the formula.  But, right now, there is no real way for them to do it.  Personally, if I get a higher than expected point count on a food and it is due to sugar, I look at the food and its ingredients to see what the source of the sugar is.  If it is natural sugar, such as from vegetables, then I am not concerned about the same way I would be if the sugar was from added sweeteners.

The TL:DR?  Added sugar isn’t really good for us and doesn’t provide nutritional benefits.  Weight Watchers thinks we should eat less of it.  And, that isn’t really a controversial point of view.  Yes, to eat well on SmartPoints and be satiated, we can’t eat as much added sugar as we could on PointsPlus.  This is a feature and not a bug.

 

 

Comments

  1. Etti says

    Really enjoyed reading this article. What’s your take on the natural sugar (lactose) in nonfat milk? Does it really merit an increase of 1 point for 8 oz for a total of 3 smart points vs 2 points plus points? Does lactose really need to be treated like an added sugar?

    • says

      No, I don’t think it does. But, it is a casualty of the fact that U.S. foods labels only show total sugar and not added sugar. To be able to have people use a calculator to figure out how many SmartPoints something is, WW has to use the numbers that are on the label. I think that if U.S. labels change (as proposed) to include added sugars, that WW would likely change to doing that (I don’t know, but that is my guess). In the meantime, it is just like the vegetables I ate that had some oil in them (so not totally 0 point) but the sugar was all natural. The vegetables had a higher point count than really warranted. I can see that some people might modify the count of milk to not count the sugar in determining the points (be careful though as some milk such as chocolate milk does have added sugar).

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