Good nutrition lays the foundation for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. Yet, one often overlooked factor is the effects of hidden sugars, which can have a major impact on both your fertility and the course of your pregnancy. In my own experience, being vigilant about added sugar intake was a very important part of having a successful and healthy pregnancy. This attentiveness didn’t stop once I became pregnant; it has remained a focus for me, while breastfeeding during the newborn stage and even extending into my life two years postpartum while still breastfeeding.
Today I’m diving into the hidden world of sugar to uncover its less obvious appearances in everyday foods and share its potential to disrupt your hormones and fertility.
What Foods Have Hidden Sugars
While you might be well aware that sweets like candy and cookies are sugar laden, you could be unknowingly consuming sugar in foods that are often thought of as ‘healthy’ or ‘innocent.’ What are some foods to look more closely at?
The sugary start to your day. A quick bowl of cereal seems like the easiest way to kickstart your morning, right? Many people view cereals, especially those that market themselves as having whole grains and vitamins on the packaging, as a nutritious option. But hold on a minute, have you ever checked the sugar content?
Even cereals labeled as “whole-grain” or “fiber-rich” can contain a shocking amount of sugar. Some popular brands contain as much as 12-15 grams of sugar per serving. Considering that the American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women, you could be halfway to your daily limit before your day even gets started!
You’re whipping up a spaghetti dinner and thinking, “Hey, tomatoes are a fruit, so this has to be healthy!” Well, think again. Many store bought pasta sauces contain added sugars, even if they’re advertised as “all natural” or “organic.” Hint: “All Natural” is just a marketing term and doesn’t really mean anything. There are no regulations behind it.
The sugar in these sauces is often used to cut the acidity of the tomatoes, but the result is a product that can be loaded with sugar. Just one serving can contain anywhere from 6-12 grams of added sugar. It adds up quickly, especially if you’re generous with the sauce like I usually am!
Ah, the salad, I love a good salad but diet culture has done a great job at convincing us that salads are automatically “healthy”. But if you’re not careful, that leafy green salad can become a sugar trap. A lot of popular salad dressings, especially ones labeled as “light” or “low-fat,” are loaded with sugar.
Some salad dressings can contain up to 5-7 grams of sugar per serving. And let’s be honest, most of us use more than the recommended serving size. Before you know it, your healthy salad is adding more sugar to your day.
You’re getting your probiotics, some protein, and possibly some fruit if you add some in. Sounds like a healthy snack, right? Well, maybe not. Many commercial yogurts are packed with added sugars, especially the flavored varieties.
Even ‘healthy’ or ‘Greek’ yogurts can be sugar traps. Some flavored Greek yogurts contain up to 10 grams of sugar per serving. Make sure you read the ingredients first.
Let’s talk about that avocado toast. Sure, you opt for whole grain bread, but did you know that even whole grain varieties often contain added sugar?
The sugar in bread is usually added to help with the yeast fermentation process, but some brands go overboard. Even a ‘healthy’ whole-grain slice can contain 2-4 grams of sugar. Now double that for a sandwich, and you’re looking at unnecessary sugar creeping in.
Knowing what these hidden sugars are added to is important. Your daily sugar consumption could be way more than it should be without you even realizing it, impacting your overall health, especially during important times like preconception and pregnancy. So next time you’re about to grab that ‘healthy’ snack or pantry staple, take a moment to read the ingredients. You might be surprised by what you find.
The Many Sugar Names on Labels
Learning to read food labels can feel like a daunting task, especially when sugar goes incognito under a variety of different names. It’s not just ‘sugar’ you need to be cautious of, it has many aliases that can make identifying it a little tricky. Here’s a more in-depth look at some common pseudonyms for sugar and sugar replacements and why they’re important to recognize.
Dextrose is a simple sugar made from corn and is chemically identical to glucose. You’ll often find this added to processed foods as a sweetening agent. It has the same metabolic impact as cane sugar.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a common sweetener found in everything from sodas to bread. HFCS has been highly scrutinized for its role in metabolic diseases and is certainly something you’d want to minimize in your diet, especially during the fertility years of life.
Agave nectar may sound like a healthier alternative, given its natural origins from the agave plant. It’s still highly processed and contains even more fructose than HFCS.
Barley malt is often used as a sweetener in various processed foods and even in some ‘health foods.’ It’s derived from sprouted barley and is processed into a syrup or powder form. It might seem like a wholesome ingredient, especially when listed among grains and natural elements but it’s a form of sugar that can contribute to spikes in blood sugar levels, making it another name to look out for on labels.
Found in grains and certain vegetables, maltose is another simple sugar. Although it’s not as sweet as other forms of sugar, maltose can still affect your blood sugar levels and thus should be consumed cautiously.
This is the scientific name for table sugar, and it’s one of the most common forms of sugar you’ll encounter. Sucrose is composed of both glucose and fructose and is a key player in spiking blood sugar levels.
Glucose is a simple sugar that your body uses for energy. However, when added to foods, it acts just like any other sugar, spiking your blood sugar and insulin levels.
Corn syrup is another commonly used sweetener made from cornstarch. While it contains less fructose than HFCS, it’s still a form of added sugar that can affect your blood sugar levels.
Fructose is naturally found in fruits, but when isolated and added to foods, it can lead to quick spikes in blood sugar. Unlike glucose, fructose bypasses the body’s usual metabolic pathways, making it easier to store as fat.
Molasses is a byproduct of sugar refining and is used to add color and sweetness to a range of foods. While it contains some vitamins and minerals, it’s still a concentrated source of sugar.
Know Your Sugars
These other sugars can easily find their way into your daily meals and snacks without you even knowing. Whether you’re in the preconception phase, pregnant, or in postpartum, being aware of your sugar intake is crucial. So the next time you’re scanning ingredient lists while grocery shopping, keep an eye out for these hidden sugar names. It’s not just about looking for the word ‘sugar’; understanding the various forms of sugars can make a significant difference in your dietary choices and overall well being.
Why Ingredient Lists Matter More Than Nutrition Labels
When looking at a food product, you may naturally look at the ‘Total Sugars’ or ‘Added Sugars’ listed under the Nutrition Facts. What you might not know is that not all types of sugars have to be listed in these sections. That’s right, certain forms of sugars can be hidden in the ingredients list under various names and may not even appear under ‘Total’ or ‘Added Sugars.’
This omission makes it even more essential to read the ingredients list first, before even glancing at the Nutrition Facts. It’s not just about counting grams of sugar; it’s about knowing what exactly you’re putting into your body.
Does Sugar Affect Hormones and Fertility
Understanding how sugar affects your body is essential in the preconception years. Let’s break down how sugar could be impacting your hormones and fertility.
Insulin Resistance: More Than Just Weight Gain
When you consume sugar, your body produces insulin to help regulate your blood sugar levels. Over time, consistently high sugar intake can make your body less responsive to insulin, leading to what is known as insulin resistance. In this state, your body has to work harder to keep blood sugar levels stable. This extra effort puts stress on various physiological systems, including your reproductive system.
Insulin resistance is also closely linked with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a condition that can severely disrupt ovulation and is a common cause of infertility. Elevated insulin levels can stimulate the ovaries to produce more androgens like testosterone, which can interfere with the development and release of eggs during your menstrual cycle. So, insulin resistance isn’t just about weight gain; but it’s affect on fertility health.
You might be surprised to learn how closely sugar and hormones are linked. Consuming too much sugar can lead to spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, which can, in turn, cause fluctuations in hormone levels. This is particularly concerning for hormones like estrogen and testosterone, both of which are essential for reproductive health.
For women, elevated insulin levels can cause the liver to produce less of a protein called sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). Lower levels of SHBG mean that more free testosterone circulates in the body, which can lead to menstrual irregularities and problems with ovulation.
For men, too much sugar can also lead to hormonal imbalances, specifically affecting testosterone levels. Lower testosterone can result in decreased sperm production, impacting fertility.
You may not feel it, but excessive sugar intake can cause low grade inflammation throughout your body. Inflammation is basically your body’s defense mechanism against invaders, but when it becomes chronic, it can lead to various health issues, including infertility.
Chronic inflammation can damage tissues in the reproductive system and has been linked to conditions like endometriosis and PCOS, both of which are known to impair fertility. Inflammation can also create an unfavorable environment in the uterus, making it more difficult for an embryo to implant.
Reducing Sugar for a Successful Fertility Journey
During my own fertility journey, taking a hard look at my sugar intake was a step I needed to take. I was consuming so many added sugars all day long. In my coffee, breakfast, snacks, lunch, dinner, sweet snacks before bed. My body was addicted to sugar. I knew that sugar was more than just empty calories; it was affecting my body in ways that could undermine my goal of becoming a mom. Staying mindful of my sugar consumption not only made me feel better, but it also helped me create a healthier environment for conception and pregnancy. Now, two years postpartum, I can confidently say that maintaining a low sugar diet was one of the best decisions I made for my health and my family’s health.
Which Foods Increase Fertility? Foods to Prioritize for a Low-Sugar, Fertility-Friendly Diet
When planning for a baby, your food choices can make a world of difference. Focusing on a low sugar diet rich in essential nutrients should be at the top of your list. Here are some foods that are both satisfying and nutrient dense:
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Skip the sugary snacks and opt for fruits and veggies. They offer natural sweetness along with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. You’re not just cutting down on sugar; you’re boosting your nutrient intake, which is a win-win for fertility.
Chicken, fish, beef and plant-based options like lentils are excellent sources of protein without the sugar spike. Protein is a building block for cell growth and repair, key factors when you’re looking to conceive.
Healthy fats like those found in avocado, grass fed butter and olive oil not only keep you satiated but also support cellular function, including hormone production, which is essential during preconception.
How to Cut Back on Sugar
Sugar’s presence in our diets can be a hard obstacle to overcome, especially when you’re trying to conceive. It finds its way into unexpected foods and hides under various names, complicating your efforts to maintain a balanced, fertility friendly diet. But the good news is, once you’re aware, you can do something about it.
I can’t emphasize the importance of watching sugar intake enough. From my own fertility journey, it was something that I couldn’t ignore, continued to be a focal point during my pregnancy, and remains a priority even two years postpartum.
When you’re out grocery shopping, don’t rush to the nutrition facts. Your first stop should be the ingredient list. Knowing what goes into your food is more crucial than the number of calories it contains.
Your choices today can have a significant impact on your fertility and pregnancy outcomes. Understanding the links between sugar, hormones, and fertility can be the difference maker in your own journey to conception and a healthy pregnancy. So, as you consider lifestyle changes to boost your fertility, don’t underestimate the impact of cutting back on added sugar.
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