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The Painful Truth About Sugar Consumption

If you’re like the average American, you eat 22 teaspoons of sugar a day without even realizing it. The American Heart Association’s recommended guideline is about 6 teaspoons (25 grams) a day of added sugar for women and 9 teaspoons (37 grams) for men.

Does it matter? What does the science say?

  • The negative effects due to high sugar consumption are overwhelming. It can raise the risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, liver disease, body inflammation, increased triglycerides, tooth decay, poor nutrition, and cancer to name a few [1-8]. As if that weren’t bad enough, added sugar can be as addictive as abusive drugs [9].

Goodness, that’s a lot of studies. Should I be worried?

  • If you think those are a lot of scary conditions to be associated with sugar, you’re right. Americans are eating 39% more sugar per capita than they were in the 1950s, and it shows in the health statistics [10].

Do I swear off sugar entirely?

  • Not quite. Whole fruits and vegetables naturally contain sugar but also have high amounts of fiber, water, and a ‘chewing resistance.’ For these reasons, it takes you a while to eat and digest a whole apple. You feel pretty satisfied and your body won’t suffer a crazy blood sugar spike. Compare how full you feel after a large apple (23g of sugar) with how you feel after a 12 oz can of CocaCola (39g of sugar).
  • Put another way, the apple has no added sugar while the soda has more than the AHA’s recommended guideline of added sugar per day. Food for thought.

 So just fruits and vegetables? That seems limiting

  • It seems restricting because our food aisles are littered with processed foods that contain lots of added sugar. These foods have tricked your taste buds into being accustomed to an overloaded level of sweetness. If you spend a couple of weeks kicking the sugar habit, you will be amazed by how sweet the “healthiest” granola bars taste. The bottom line is you should approach added sugar very cautiously.

 What is “added sugar” anyway?

  • In contrast to fruits and vegetables, foods with added sugars have none of the extra fiber, water, or chewing resistance. This means you’ll get a large blood sugar spike, as well as a higher risk of insulin resistance and diabetes. Added sugars also contain extra calories with absolutely no extra nutrients - they’re just empty calories.
  • “Added sugar” goes by many names: high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, maltose, and lactose are all common examples.

 Okay, so I’ll reign in my sweet tooth!

  • Be careful, it’s not just sweets you have to worry about. Food companies relentlessly use sugar to gain loyalty from your tastebuds. Canned foods, processed foods, salad dressings, pasta sauces, and ketchup all have lots of added sugar with the same dangerous risks.

What about fruit juices?

  • Fruit juices can actually be dangerous because they have very little fiber and no chewing resistance. A 60 calorie orange takes a few minutes to eat and takes even longer to digest. A 110 calorie cup of orange juice can be guzzled down in a few seconds and digested even faster. Unchecked fructose can be just as dangerous for insulin and diabetes issues so approach with caution [11].
  • Vegetables are naturally lower in sugar than fruits so fresh vegetable juices are a healthy alternative.

 What about artificial sweeteners?

  • This is a whole other can of worms. Artificial sweeteners are appealing to users who want the sweet taste but not the extra calories. The jury is still out about whether artificial sweeteners are safe alternatives to table sugar.

 What’s the bottom line?

  • Added sugar, whether it’s artificial or not, is dangerous in large amounts. Refer to the AHA’s recommended guidelines above.
  • Artificial sweeteners are not a magic pill. There are unknowns in the cancer debate, and you might be overstimulating your sugar receptors and slowing down your metabolism. (Animal studies show that rats who had artificial sweeteners put on 14% more body fat in just two weeks, even when they ate fewer calories!) [12]
  • Artificial sweeteners, like any ‘natural’ sweetener, evokes a sugar-digesting response in your body without the associated fiber or chewing resistance that fruits and vegetables have. Basically, your body thinks there is sugar when there isn’t, which is bad news for your insulin.
  • Research also shows that artificial sweeteners may “prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake.” This could make kicking a sugar habit even more difficult [13].

Remember: if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If you decide to use artificial sweeteners, do so with caution and realize that you are likely switching one dangerous substance for another.

Tips for cutting back?

  • First and foremost, reduce your intake of sugary drinks and sodas.
  • Eat fresh fruit when you’re craving something sweet.
  • Stay away from processed foods and try to limit your juice consumption.
  • Consider enhancing foods with cinnamon or vanilla instead of sugar.

NOTE: A product advertised as “sugar-free” might still have artificial sweeteners or other sugar substitutes. Food marketing is designed to be powerful and particularly effective against uneducated consumers.

 

[1] http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S26/91/22K07/

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17709452?dopt=Abstract

[3] http://jn.nutrition.org/content/138/8/1452.abstract

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17402291?dopt=Abstract

[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14713323

[6] http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jdr/2012/789174/

[7] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0306987783900956

[8] http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/6/9/677.short

[9] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763407000589

[10] http://www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2.pdf

[11] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17709452?dopt=Abstract

[12] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=A+Role+for+Sweet+Taste%3A+Calorie+Predictive+Relations+in+Energy+Regulation

[13] http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030

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