By Lorie Swaydan, Huntsman World Senior Games
Sugar makes everything taste good. And, it has some very important uses. Science tells us that sugar is necessary for proper brain function. It is also a great source of quick energy, and because it causes the release of dopamine, sugar can make us feel good...at least for a while. The problem is added sugar. The kind that is found in at least 60% of packaged food in American grocery stores. The kind that we find in sweet treats like cookies, cakes, ice cream and especially sugary beverages like soda or sports drinks. But more surprising, added sugar also shows up in foods like soup, salad dressing, peanut butter and bread. It’s everywhere. And we don’t need it!
Although a sweet treat once in a while isn’t bad, an excessive amount of sugar leads to a variety of health problems. It can have a negative impact on the pancreas, skin, teeth, and liver. It can affect your mood, increase inflammation and add extra calories without any nutritional benefits. This leads to weight gain, even obesity, with its increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. According to Harvard Health, “Too much added sugar can be one of the greatest threats to cardiovascular disease.” In a 15-year study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014, people who consumed more added sugar increased their risk of dying from heart disease. According to Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health sugar especially impacts the heart. It is processed just like alcohol in the liver. This turns to excess fat and contributes to heart disease. “Basically, the higher the intake of added sugar, the higher the risk for heart disease," says Dr. Hu.”
So, how did we get here? Why are we consuming more and more sugar when the results are clearly harmful? The cultivation of sugarcane may go back as far as 8,000 BC. The first chemically refined sugar appeared in India around 2,500 years ago. Throughout the Middle Ages sugar was expensive and sparsely used as a spice, but now it is cheap and abundant. Food manufacturers use it to increase flavor and shelf life. Sugar also has addictive effects, like bingeing and withdrawal symptoms, similar to drugs. This may be another reason that we are using more and more sugar. According to Scientific American sugar may not be addictive in exactly the same way as drugs, but it does seem to, “trick the brain into overeating” by producing a strong urge to consume lots of foods that are high in sugar and fat and low in nutritional benefits.
Here are a few ideas on how to combat those sugar cravings and keep sugar consumption under control:
- Look at Food Labels. The FDA has updated the requirements for food labels to show added sugars in addition to the total amount of sugar. The total amount of sugar includes naturally occurring sugar. Added sugars are those added during processing or packaging. “The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories per day. For example, if you consume a 2,000 calorie daily diet, that would be 200 calories or 50 grams of added sugars per day.”
- Eat More Fruits and Vegetables. These nutrient dense foods will supply all the sugar and energy that our bodies need. They also supply fiber which slows down the absorption of sugar and keeps our blood glucose levels from spiking. A diet high in fruits and vegetables has many other health benefits as well, including lower blood pressure, lower rates of some cancers and better overall heart health.
- Recognize Other Names for Sugar: There are at least 56 different names for sugar.
- Ingredients that end with “-ose” – These three letters signal sugar. And it’s not just glucose, like what’s found in your body. Sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, lactose, galactose and variations of these are all common forms of sugar.
- Sweet-sounding words and phrases – If you see “sweet” in a word or phrase, it’s sugar. Same for juice and syrup. Look out for these stealthier sweeteners: dextrin, barley malt, diatese, diastatic malt, turbinado and ethyl maltol.
- It’s All in the Numbers: The American Heart Association suggests that you, “...think of your daily calorie needs as a budget, you want to “spend” most of your calories on “essentials” to meet your nutrient needs. Use only left over, discretionary calories for “extras” that provide little or no nutritional benefit, such as sugar.” Some other useful numbers when thinking about sugar: One gram of sugar contains four calories. And, there are 4.2 grams in a teaspoon (16.8 calories). There are on average 9 or more teaspoons (36+ grams) of sugar in one 12 ounce can of soda.
- Moderation: If we are eating a well-balanced diet, our bodies don’t need any added sugar. However, a sweet treat now and then isn’t going to kill us either. It is recommended that women eat no more than 6 teaspoons and men no more than 9 teaspoons a day of added sugar. Health experts also suggest limiting sweets to once in a while can keep the daily cravings at bay. This is supported by the Healthy Eating Pyramid, which suggests that foods with added sugar should be used sparingly, if at all.