A calorie is a calorie, right? Wrong.
"Sugar calories"--the calories that come from carbohydrates (aka sugar)--are the only calories that truly affect weight loss and weight gain, says Jorge Cruise, author of Inches Off! Your Tummy. Why? They spike your blood sugar levels, triggering the release of hoards of insulin, which tell your body to store food as fat and hang onto the fat your body already has. Meanwhile, your blood glucose and energy levels plummet, hunger mounts, and you're left looking for your next fat-packing sugar fix--all before you're even done digesting the first.
To break the cycle, Cruise recommends limiting your intake of sugar calories to 100 per day. Doing so keeps insulin levels balanced so that you burn belly fat and keep it off. Calculate how many sugar calories you're consuming by multiplying the number of total carbohydrate grams listed on the back of your food by four, the number of calories that a single gram of carbohydrates contains, says Cruise. But beware: Even some so-called "health foods" are full of insulin-spiking sugar. To help you keep your diet as healthy as possible, here are 10 foods that are surprisingly high in sugar calories, plus low-sugar swaps guaranteed to keep your taste buds--and waistline--happy.
92 sugar calories per ½ cup
If you're like most dieters, you equate beans to protein, not starch. Big mistake. Starches are broken down into sugars in the body and can trump protein's best efforts to stabilize blood sugar levels, Cruise says. The result: Your blood sugar goes on a rollercoaster ride.
Low-Sugar Swap: If your taste buds are set on legumes, add a couple of tablespoons of hummus to your meal. With only 16 sugar calories, it can satisfy your cravings sans sizeable regret, according to Inches Off! Your Tummy.
160 sugar calories per ½ cup
Don't let the health-touting commercials fool you, Cruise warns. The back of these boxes often list lots of sugary syrups including maple syrup, glucose syrup, and high fructose corn syrup. Even if your favorite brand lets you sidestep the syrup, granola is full of carbs all by itself.
The Low-Sugar Swap: If you want to add some crunch to your morning yogurt, try a handful of almonds, Cruise advises. Low in sugar and packed with healthy unsaturated fats, almonds help you build more calorie-torching muscle, keep you full until lunch time, and boost your energy so you'll actually make it to your morning workout for a change.
92 sugar calories per cup
Even unsweetened rice milk is sweet all on its own. Why? Made from boiling high-carb rice in water, rice milk is basically just sugar water, Cruise says. Don't even get us started on sweetened varieties.
The Low-Sugar Swap: If you want to go dairy-free without loading up on sugar, Cruise recommends opting for unsweetened almond milk. Most brands contain fewer than 10 sugar calories per cup, others are completely sugar-free.
208 sugar calories per cup
It might not be sweet, but a cup of these good-for-you grains contains more insulin-spiking sugar than many candy bars. Why? A grain--even if it packs more protein and nutrients than its white counterparts--is still largely composed of carbohydrates. And, seriously, who ever eats just one cup of pasta?
Low-Sugar Swap: Straight from Japan, shirataki (pronounced: shee-rah-TAH-kee) noodles are a great way to eat the pasta meals you love without all the carbs, says Cruise. Made from tofu, the noodles are high in protein and low in carbs and sodium. Plus, with little flavor to call their own, they readily absorb whatever spices or sauces you pair with them. They're available in most supermarkets and health-food stores.
92 sugar calories
Sad fact: Even natural sugar--like that in your juicy, dripping pear--triggers the release of fat-trapping insulin, says Cruise. Mowed down in just a few bites, a single pear almost fulfills your daily limit of sugar calories.
Low-Sugar Swap: Equally sweet and sizeable, apricots contain a mere 16 sugar calories each, all with generous doses of vitamin C to keep your immune system in tip-top shape, says Cruise.
52 sugar calories per 6 oz
"People believe that fat makes you fat, but many fat-free options are full of sugar," Cruise says." Why? Food manufacturers commonly use sugar to make up for a lack of (good) flavor in low-fat foods.
Low-Sugar Swap: When it comes to yogurt, go Greek. Unlike old-school yogurt, Greek yogurt does not contain whey, the watery part of curdled milk that is high in sugars. Stick with plain (no syrupy fruits and flavorings added) varieties no matter what fat percentage you choose, he recommends. While full-fat versions can fill you up, not out, even low- and no-fat versions typically contain no added sugars or artificial sweeteners.
240 sugar calories per ¼ cup
As far as Cruise is concerned, never, and he means never, eat your fruits dried. In nature, water is a main component of fruit, and can actually help regulate the body's blood sugar levels. So when you suck all of the moisture from your fruit, you also suck dry its ability to moderate blood glucose spikes. What's more, you make the fruit ridiculously smaller, fitting an entire fruit's worth of sugar in just a few bites.
Low-Sugar Swap: Pop-able and oh-so sweet, berries are perfect to sub in for dried fruits, Cruise says. Black berries, for instance, contain 29 sugar calories per ½ cup. Plus, they come with the water to help fill you up and keep your metabolism running at its max.
80 sugar calories
Think a wrap is an easy way to cut carbs from your BLT? Think again. Breads and wraps don't typically vary wildly in carb content--especially if they come from the same ingredients, according to Cruise.
Low-Sugar Swap: Made from almond flour, almond bread is a grain-free, gluten-free, and low-carb alterative to bread that makes for a delicious, protein-rich sammie, he says. Look for it at your favorite health-foods store or make it yourself.
92 sugar calories
Sure, they contain a little less sugar than traditional spuds (not to mention more nutrients), but sweet potatoes still pack plenty, Cruise says. Did you know some starches actually are converted to sugar so quickly in the body that they can raise blood sugar faster than table sugar?
Low-Sugar Swap: More green = less starch. Pretty much every green veggie out there--from spinach and broccoli to zucchini and snap peas--are freebie foods, meaning they don't add a single sugar calorie to your daily count.
116 sugar calories per 8 ounces
Fruits are full of fructose and fiber, Cruise says. Juice them and you're just left with more insulin-upping fructose per gulp. Plus, you lose many of the vitamins and minerals that give fruit its health-food status.
Low-Sugar Swap: Brew some unsweetened iced tea to quench your thirst with a healthy helping of antioxidants and absolutely zero sugar calories, suggests Cruise. Have one or two sugar calories to spare? Squeeze in some lemon for a bit of sweetness coupled with extra free-radical fighters. If you go for store-bought varieties, check the label before you buy to make sure they are really unsweetened and pack zero carbs.