Sugar and our health has been in the news a lot lately. Perhaps you saw the CBS 60 Minutes segment titled “Is sugar toxic?” Dr. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco concluded that sugar, more than any other substance, is to blame for obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Bonnie Liebman, Director of Nutrition at Center for Science in the Public Interest recently wrote that for years researchers have found a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, gout, and weight gain in people who consume more sugar-sweetened beverages. And a flurry of new studies suggests that our out-of-control sweet tooth is connected to our out-of-control belly fat.
The average American consumes 22 to 28 teaspoons of added sugar a day mostly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or ordinary table sugar (sucrose). Since its peak in 1999, intake from total sugars is down 8% and HFCS is down approximately 9% for the same time period, yet our obesity rates continue to rise dramatically during this same time period.
Since the 1970s we have been warned to lower our fat consumption to reduce our risks of heart disease. I remember the explosion of “fat-free” or “low-fat” products in the cookie and snack aisle. Consumers bought these items freely thinking they were being “healthy”, but our obesity rates continued to rise. How could this be? When you take the fat out of products they don’t taste very good, so the food manufacturers simply replaced the fat with sugar, and over time sugar was replaced with HFCS. A slice of Starbucks Reduced-Fat Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake has 10 teaspoons of added sugars!
First I would like to remind everyone that sugar from any source in non-nutritive, in other words – it’s just calories. With few exceptions (like agave and corn syrup), most sweeteners and naturally occurring sugars in fruit break down into roughly half fructose and half glucose in the body (see the chart below).
Source: USDA Nutrient Database.
In three different studies, scientists randomly assigned people sugary beverages (made with sugar or HFCS) versus diet beverages for three to 10 weeks. No surprise, the people who consumed the sugar or HFCS drinks gained weight. So why does HFCS get such a bad rap? Sweeteners high in fructose do not affect blood sugar because fructose is metabolized in the liver very quickly. Research shows that when there is more sugar than the liver can process, it converts the sugar to fat. Some of the fat goes into the bloodstream, and that’s why we get elevated triglycerides and increase one’s risk for heart disease. It may also increase the risk of metabolic syndrome/insulin resistance, which leads to type 2 diabetes.
The bottom line:
It is recommended that women should consumer no more than 100 calories (6 ½ teaspoons) and men 150 calories (9 ½ teaspoons) from added sugars a day, which is roughly 5% of a 2,000 a day diet. It’s the excess that leads to the problems. Remember that Starbucks coffee cake?
Limit fruit juice consumption to no more than 6-8 ounces a day. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.
Limit all added sugars (see chart above). Even Agave syrup, which has become popular among the health conscious, it may be low on the glycemic index, but it will still affect your triglyceride level more than HFCS.
Don’t worry about the naturally occurring sugar in fruit, milk, and plain yogurt.
Eat a balanced diet and get most of your calories from fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, meat, fish, poultry, and oils. That doesn’t leave much room for empty calories!