‘Tis the season to remember: Sugar and sweets can be toxic to your health as they more than likely are putting you over your recommended daily limit of sugar.
According to the American Heart Association, the average American adult consumes 22 teaspoons of “added” sugar per day — far exceeding the guideline of 6 teaspoons per day for women, 9 for men. And the average 1- to 3-year-old consumes roughly 12 teaspoons of sugar a day (recommendation is 2), while the average 4- to 8-year-old consumes 21 teaspoons on a daily basis (and the guideline is a maximum of 4). It’s not just the Halloween sugar intake that is frightening. The daily intake averages estimated 365 days of the year, are terrifying!
Understanding sugars is important as eating too many foods with added sugar can set the stage for haunting health risks including obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and cardiovascular disease, as well as other risks. Given the time of year, here are the spooky facts about sugar that may help curb that sweet tooth for our upcoming Thanksgiving feasts and other December holiday festivities. While a timely reminder, it is not just about annual holidays as sugars lurk (going by many names) every day, “Biters Beware.”
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Sugar
What are added sugars? Sugars and syrups that are removed from their original source and added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared in order to sweeten them.
Conversely, “natural” sugar is found in fruit, veggies and dairy products such as milk and cheese. And, although natural sugars consist of some of the same carbohydrates as added sugar, it is accompanied by other good stuff such as protein, vitamins, calcium, fiber, and other nutrients.
Some of the biggest sources of added sugar include: sugar sweetened beverages such as regular soft drinks, energy drinks, and sports drinks contribute to approximately one-third of the added sugar that Americans consume; candy; cookies, cakes, and pastries; ice cream and frozen yogurt; jams and preserved foods; and cereal and bread products.
What are the recommendations for added sugar? The American Dietary Association’s (ADA) 2015 guidelines advises that we consume less than 10% of our daily calories from added sugar. Added sugars contribute zero nutrients but use up a good portion of our daily calorie allowance. And, in doing so, it is difficult—if not impossible—to meet nutrient needs while staying within caloric limits if we consume more. Nutrients are necessary for our body to function optimally; after all, food fuels our body.
What does increased sugar consumption do?
There is a growing body of evidence that increased sugar consumption is linked to heart disease, cancer production (along with decreased cancer survival), dementia, and weight gain. And let’s not forget that with increased weight, comes a myriad of chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis.
Regarding weight gain, each gram of sugar contains 4 calories. So, if an item contains 30 grams of added sugar it is equivalent to 120 calories. As we know, consuming more calories than we burn, can cause us to pack on the pounds. Additionally, sugar has indirect effects when it comes to our weight. Too much raises our blood sugar levels which triggers insulin release. And because insulin promotes fat storage, excessive insulin can cause weight gain.
Why are we so sweet on sugar? It is highly addicting. Our brain’s pleasure center ensures survival as a species—it links activities needed for survival such as eating and sex with pleasure and reward. Additionally, it includes areas involved with motivation and memory, so that we continue to pursue the behavior.
However, sugar (similar to nicotine, alcohol and illegal drugs), hack into the pleasure center. And, as a result, too much sugar can stimulate a loss of control, cravings and increased tolerance to sugar.
What can I do to cut down on my sugar consumption?
• Read and Understand Nutrition Labels
The new rules by the FDA for food labeling of added sugar—where it would be listed in grams and as percent Daily Value (%DV) to allow consumers to quickly assess content, compare items, and determine if they want to allocate their 10% of added sugars to that item—have been delayed. At this time, only total sugar is listed, making it challenging to figure out if an item is high in added sugars, or mostly consists of natural sugars.
You may be able to gauge how much added sugar is present by reviewing the list of ingredients on the nutrition label. Know that ingredients are listed in order of quantity from greatest to least. And, too, that added sugar has a number of synonyms such as glucose, agave nectar, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, and dextrose, and anything that ends with “-ose,” to name a few. Additionally, fast foods and processed foods are loaded with added sugars as well as a number of our favorite salty foods such as ketchup, salad dressings, pasta sauces, bread, and rice.
• Fruit and Fiber
Having a craving for something sweet? Grab a piece of fruit to satisfy and subdue it. Although fruit contains simple sugars, it is a good source of fiber which delays the absorption of sugar from our intestines. Consequently, blood sugar levels do not spike the same way it would for added sugars—nor does insulin levels which can cause subsequent sugar lows, and a craving for more sugar.
Additionally, because fiber makes our tummies feel full, it can decrease the number of calories we ultimately consume. So the next time we are craving for something sweet, instead, indulge with a banana, apple, grapes, pear, or pineapple….the list goes on.
• Buy unsweetened
A number of seemingly healthy food items—almond milk, soy milk, applesauce, oatmeal, canned fruit—may be sweetened. Buy foods labeled “no sugar added” or “unsweetened.” A common item that falls into this category at this time of the year is canned pureed pumpkin.
• Avoid artificial sweeteners
Although these no-calorie sweeteners were developed to be the perfect solution to our country’s sugar problem, research has shown that they have a number of indirect consequences that we must be aware of. Some artificial sweeteners are up to 600 times sweeter than sugar. Thus, it distorts our sweetness expectations. And the next time we reach for a cookie, it may not be enough—we will likely reach for another and another to gratify our supercharged craving.
Additionally, when we consume sweet items—either artificial sweeteners or actual sugar—our body expects calories and nutrition. However, artificial sugars fail to provide either of these. Many experts believe that this is the reason that sweeteners lead to weight gain—our body continues to crave for food items and we continue to consume them to meet these needs.
• Inject bursts of flavor into food
Spices, herbs, and other flavorings in our foods can satisfy our sweet cravings. And, too, many of these items—cinnamon, coriander, vinegar, cloves, cocoa powder, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla bean or extract, or citrus zest—are not just tasty, but they are also filled with antioxidants, nutrients, and vitamins.
• Avoid Dehydration
Sometimes what we perceive as a sugar craving may really just be a sign of thirst. Dehydration makes it difficult for our liver to break down glycogen, a storage form of sugar, and utilize it as fuel. So the next time we are yearning for that sugar fix, let’s consider reaching for a glass—or two—of water first. We may not even want the sugary item after.
We all benefit in knowing the facts about sugar and recognizing how much sugar we are choosing to consume. As with many things, when it comes to diet, going overboard today could lead to unwanted health effects tomorrow! Remain mindful and take action on a daily basis – especially when candy, cookies, sugary drinks and other sugar-laden confections seem to call your name. Remain vigilant in gaining health knowledge and empowered against the dark side of sugars to make a difference in the what you – and your loved ones – consume.