Scientists and doctors have been warning us for decades about the dangers of too much fat and salt in our diets. Countless low-salt and low-fat weight-loss regimens and foods have been developed and (quite literally) eaten up by the masses. More recently, the focus has shifted to the health risks associated with consuming high levels of sugar. As rates of sugar-related disorders such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease climb, many experts believe that when Americans rid themselves of fat, they simply replaced it with sugar in all its forms.
The food industry loves these sweeteners, especially high fructose corn syrup, and it is easy to understand why. They do make food more palatable – from soup to bagels, ketchup to bread. Pre-packaged foods are meant to sit on store shelves for months before expiring. In order to mask the chemical additives needed to keep these foods from going stale, manufacturers add sugar.
Health Risks Associated with Sugar
Worldwide we are consuming about 500 extra calories a day from sugar. That’s 28 teaspoons of sugar a day. Those ‘empty’ calories can have harmful effects on metabolism and contribute to all sorts of diseases. An estimated 100 million Americans are living with diabetes or pre-diabetes. Added sugar is 11 times more potent at causing diabetes than general calories. If your pancreas, the organ that produces insulin to control your blood sugar levels, is healthy, your blood sugar levels should not increase too much after eating sucrose. A healthy pancreas can offset a high sucrose intake. However, if you have pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, your body does not respond normally to insulin. Your blood sugar levels are more likely to increase quickly, go higher and stay high for a longer period of time if you have a condition associated with insulin resistance. Controlling your sucrose intake can help you maintain more stable blood sugar levels.
There is a strong statistical link between sugar consumption and obesity. People who consume high levels of sugar are by far the most likely to become overweight or obese. This applies to children as well as adults. Fructose consumption negatively changes the way your brain recognizes how much you have eaten or drank. When you eat sugary foods and drink sugary drinks, your brain starts to resist Leptin. Leptin is the protein that regulates energy intake and outflow (which includes your keeping your appetite in check and your metabolism working efficiently). As a result, you eat and eat yet don’t feel full. For example, a smoothie containing high amounts of fructose will do little to make you think you are full even though you are taking in tons of calories. Your brain doesn’t get the message that you have consumed much of anything and so it still thinks you’re still hungry.
Sugar is addictive. When we eat foods that are high in added sugars, dopamine is released into the reward center of the brain, much like abusive drugs. This dopamine release is much more powerful than what occurs when we eat foods found in nature. The subsequent brain stimulation generates a strong reward signal, which can be extremely difficult to resist. Additionally, fructose fools our brains into thinking we are not full, so we overeat. The combination of dopamine release and perceived hunger causes a dangerous and powerful domino effect that can lead to obesity.
Are You Addicted to Sugar?
Sugar addiction is a real issue. In fact, sugar is believed to be eight times more addictive than cocaine. Some people are more sensitive than others, but the more sugar you eat, the more likely it is to have taken hold of your addictive pathways, leading you to eat — and drink — far too much.
- Do you struggle to walk past a sugary treat without taking ‘just one’?
- Do you have routines around sugar consumption – for example, always having a bowl of ice cream, or needing a piece of chocolate to relax in front of the television?
- When things are bad, do you find you need more and more sweet foods to feel better?
- Do you feel you need to (have to) have something sweet after lunch or dinner?
- If you are forced to go without sugar for 24 hours, do you develop headaches and mood swings?
- Do you feel guilty after eating sweet foods?
- Is eating something sugary a planned part of your everyday schedule?
- Do you or your family make and/or stockpile sugary snacks and desserts?
- Does your energy feel depleted as a result of eating too much sugar?
- Have you ever tried (and failed) to limit the amount of sugar you eat?
If you answered ‘yes’ to the majority of the questions above, you are most likely a sugar addict.
When we are asked to list foods that are high in sugar, most of us think of things like candy, cookies, juice, ice cream and other ‘sweet’ foods. These treats certainly contain high levels of sugar. There is a long list of seemingly ‘healthy’ foods that are filled with sugar. Dried fruit, granola bars, energy drinks, pasta and barbecue sauces and most yogurts are chock full of hidden sugar.
Finding the sugar in foods is not always easy. Sugar is not always noted as ‘sugar’ on the Nutrition Facts panel on beverages and foods. These are all types of sugar that you might commonly see listed on packaging labels: Anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sugar, syrup and white sugar. Other types of sugar you might see on ingredient lists are fructose, lactose and maltose. Fructose is sugar derived from fruit and vegetables; lactose is milk sugar; and maltose is sugar that comes from grain.
Kicking the Sugar Habit
If sugar (or a sugar from the list above) is one of the first three ingredients, reconsider your choice. Ingredients are listed by weight, so the ingredients that are listed first make up a greater percentage of the product. Choose foods and beverages with the least amount of added sugar. Aim for products with no more than 2.5 grams of added sugar per 100 calories. Even foods like multi-grain bread contain about 2 grams of added sugar per slice. Look for brands that have the label “no added sugar.” When a sweet craving hits you, choose fresh fruit. It provides vitamins, minerals and fiber so it will keep you feeling fuller longer.
Women should limit their intake of added sugars to 25 grams per day. (That’s about 100 calories, or 6 teaspoons.) Most men should limit added sugars to 38 grams per day, which is about 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons.
As with most things, sugar should be consumed in moderation. If you are paying attention to what is in the products you purchase and you consciously try to limit your sugar intake, you are on the right track to living a healthy life.