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Just a Spoonful of Sugar

Jan 29, 2015 12:45PM ● Published by Kourtney Jason

Whether or not you’re aware of and tracking your daily sugar intake, it’s likely you’re consuming too much. According to the American Heart Association, the average sugar intake in the U.S. is 20 teaspoons per person, per day. So what are the health risks? We investigated the not-so-sweet truth.

WHAT IS “GOOD” SUGAR?

Not all sugar is created equal. “There’s a difference between the sugars naturally present in fruits, vegetables and other foods, and those that are added to foods as sweetening agents. In general, table sugar and other simple sugars can be defined as ‘added’ or ‘free sugars,’” says Tamalisa Carlson, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian at Marshall Medical Center. She also explains the difference between nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. Nutritive sweeteners supply calories to the diet and include sugars naturally present in foods, such as fruit, milk and starchy foods, as well as table sugar, honey, agave and corn-based sweeteners. Nonnutritive sweeteners provide little or no energy with a very high level of sweetness to food products.

DAILY INTAKE

The 2003 World Health Organization’s recommendation was that free sugars should be less than 10 percent of a person’s dietary intake, Carlson says. Those guidelines are now even stricter, limiting sugar intake to less than five percent of your caloric intake. “For someone consuming a 1,500 calorie diet, this recommendation would be about 20 grams of sugar (five teaspoons)—approximately the amount in a half can of cola (six ounces),” she says. The American Heart Association sets its recommendations for added sugar at six teaspoons (100 calories) per day for women and nine teaspoons (150 calories) per day for men. However, the amount you should consume is ultimately based on individual needs. “A person who consumes a higher calorie diet and is more active may be able to tolerate more sugar than others,” Carlson says. “In general, the rule of thumb is that sugar should be as low as possible, or at least under 10 percent of calories.”

EFFECTS ON HEALTH

Too much sugar can cause serious problems for the liver and heart. “An important function of the liver is to store glucose for later use,” Carlson says. “When too much sugar is in the diet, there’s an increased risk for obesity and excess fat to be stored in the liver (fatty liver), which can cause inflammation and may lead to scarring of the liver.” Several studies have also shown an increased risk for heart disease in those consuming higher levels of sugar, she says. “Excess sugar is linked with higher risks for obesity, which drives other diseases—diabetes, certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and more,” she says.
Too much sugar can also cause dental caries (tooth decay), increased inflammation, elevated blood sugars, mood swings, irritability and insomnia, to name just a few unattractive consequences.

SUGAR HIGH

Sugar, in the form of glucose, fuels the brain. When sugar breaks down, it can cause blood sugar spikes, which “excite reward mechanisms in the brain and [cause] feelings of pleasure, but these highs can be followed by lows, since the sugars lack fiber and protein to provide lasting energy,” she says. This cycle continues as the body seeks sugar to feel good again.

EVERYTHING IN MODERATION

If you’re consuming too much sugar, Carlson suggests finding the triggers and deciding how you can make healthier choices in the future. “If you missed a meal and find yourself raiding the office candy dish, maybe keeping some veggies or nuts as snacks will help,” she says. And if you’ve splurged, limit your intake for a while to reduce the impact. Increasing exercise is also helpful, as you’ll burn the additional calories.

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