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Wegmans nutritionist Krystal Register talks about the new nutrition guidelines.
Wegmans nutritionist Krystal Register talks about the new nutrition guidelines. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Customers who walk into the Columbia Wegmans are met with stacks of flavored seltzer, jams and peanut butter that all have one thing in common: They contain little or no added sugar.

Prominent displays to sway customers to more healthful options are just one of the things the grocer is using as part of a new campaign to help people reduce sugar intake. They have also trained workers so they can dole out nutritional advice on sugar. And in what is probably the biggest change, the grocer reconfigured the ingredients in some store-branded jams, sauces and other grocery items to include less sugar.

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The low-sugar campaign at Wegmans comes as the federal government has introduced new nutrition guidelines that point to the sweet stuff as a major nutritional culprit that leads to obesity and bad health.

A panel of nutritionists and health experts that updates the nation's dietary guidelines every five years included sugar reduction in a draft last month.

Natural sugars are OK, the panel said, but people should not eat more than 200 calories, or 10 percent of total calories, a day in added sugar. Americans now get about 13 percent of their calories from added sugar, or 268 calories a day, the committee said.

The sugary sodas and sweet treats were just some of the foods the panel said Americans should ditch. They also suggested people reduce the amount of meats they eat and build meals around more produce instead. Sodium should be limited to 2,300 milligrams per day.

On the flip side, some foods once shunned are now accepted. Research has found that cholesterol-high foods are no longer believed to contribute to high blood cholesterol, so people can now indulge in shrimp, eggs and other foods that were once off limits, the panel said.

Rather than focus on cholesterol, people should curb saturated fat to about 8 percent of the diet. Foods high in saturated fats include beef, cheese, dairy products and some processed baked goods.

It is also OK for people to feed their Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts caffeine habit — up to a point. Up to five cups of coffee a day are fine, so long they are not flavored with lots of milk and sugar. The panel also singled out the Mediterranean diet — rich in fish and chicken, fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil and legumes — for its nutritional value.

Nutritionists embraced the guidelines but said helping people to adopt them is key.

"It doesn't help if you just put guidelines out on a website," said Krystal Register, a Wegmans nutritionist. "We help people find easy ways to embrace healthy eating."

Eating more healthfully can be a daunting task for people. Not only are they often presented with a barrage of research and conflicting dietary advice, but understanding nutrition labels and portion sizes can also prove difficult.

The dietary guidelines are considered the gold standard and followed by nutritionists and used to determine what is included in school lunches. The panel said its decisions this year were driven by the fact that half of adults have one or more preventable chronic disease and two-thirds are overweight or obese.

Register suggested families ease into changes slowly so they don't feel deprived. Add more vegetables one week. Skip dessert one night. Slowly reduce soda intake. Add a little less sugar to coffee.

Gabrielle Judd, a registered dietitian who works with heart and lung transplant patients at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said people should think about what they can have rather than what they can't.

"It's never fun to think about what you have to take away from your diet," Judd said. "You don't' want to just go from eating regularly one day to a diet that is vegan the next day."

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The dietary guidelines also note that consumers shouldn't focus solely reducing foods to become healthier. Instead, they should think about shifting eating patterns — for instance, replacing saturated fat with foods with unsaturated fat, or replacing sugary drinks with water, and avoiding artificial sweeteners or diet drinks.

If counting calories is hard, another approach is to focus on staying away from processed food and focus on eating fresh fare or frozen fruits and vegetables. At dinner, fill half the plate with vegetables.

Jason Williams, a nutrition coach at Maryland Athletic Club in Harbor East, also tells his clients to have patience and look at it as a lifestyle change rather than a diet.

"It's not going to happen overnight," Williams said. "It's a process." He added that once clients are educated on how to eat better, they find it easier. Many people just don't know where to start.

Wegmans nutritionists hope education helps too. Their in-store magazine, named Wegmans Menu, recently featured ways to cut back on sugar. The issue included fact pages on the difference between natural and added sugar. It featured low-sugar recipes and explained why added sugars are unhealthy and where they are found. It also gave ideas for healthy, low-sugar snacks.

Those on the journey to getting healthier say it can be done.

Dilini Perera works at a bar at night and used to find herself going for long periods without eating, which played havoc with her metabolism. Since working with a trainer at MAC, she now cooks healthy meals at home and makes sure to snack healthily while at work.

Myoshi Smith gained "happy" weight after meeting a new guy last year and is now trying to take it off. She has cut back on what she eats at happy hour and has cut portions. She also uses more seasonings for flavor so her food still tastes good.

And, like the new guidelines suggest, she has cut back significantly on sugar after figuring out it was her addictive weakness. When she can't fight a craving, she'll have a small portion, such as a kids' size ice cream cup. The result: She has lost weight and feels better.

"It can be done," she said.

Twitter.com/ankwalker

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