How much sugar is too much?
The American Heart Association recommends that men keep their added sugar intake under 36 grams per day. They recommend less than 25 grams per day for women.
This is much less sugar than the average American consumes on a daily basis. The average American adult consumes about 77 grams of sugar each day. The numbers are even worse for children who consume about 81 grams on average.
Where is all this sugar coming from?
Most of the sugar Americans consume actually comes from beverages. They account for about half of all the added sugar in the American diet. About half of this sugar comes from soda. In fact, just one 12 ounce soda has enough sugar to put you over the recommended daily allowance.
The other half of the sugar Americans consume from beverages come from fruit juice, coffee, tea, and sports drinks. Even fruit juice that does not contain any added sugar can still contain as much sugar as a soda. Seemingly healthy coffee and tea based beverages that you purchase often contain even more sugar than a soda.
The rest of the sugar Americans consume comes from processed foods. Alarmingly, about 70% of the American diet is composed of processed foods. Many of these foods contain added sugar as well as refined carbohydrates that easily turn to sugar once ingested.
Besides the obviously sweet processed foods like cakes, pastries, cookies, and ice cream, sugar is also hidden in not-so sweet processed foods like breads, cereals, crackers, snack bars, and frozen meals.
Why is this bad?
Excess sugar consumption can lead to a long list of adverse effects on your health. It can lead to:
- Obesity: About 40% of American adults are obese. This number has increased fourfold since the 1950s. Being obese puts you at risk for a range of other adverse health conditions.
- Metabolic syndrome: This is a series of risk factors including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides that increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and fatty liver disease
- Inflammatory diseases: These include cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and arthritis
Is any sugar healthy?
The body responds to sugar differently depending on how it is consumed. Added sugar differs from sugar found naturally in plants.
For example, fructose is the type of sugar found in fruits. Consumption of fructose as an added ingredient is associated with metabolic syndrome and inflammation. Fructose consumed as a naturally occurring ingredient in fruit is not associated with these conditions because it is accompanied by fiber, antioxidants, potassium, and vitamin C and occurs in lower levels than is found in processed foods that contain high fructose corn syrup.
Different types of sugar also have different effects. High fructose corn syrup is commonly added to processed foods and is a particularly damaging type of sugar.
Studies have shown that replacing fructose with glucose in the form of starch lead to improvements in fat production, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, and bad cholesterol levels. This is due to differences in sugar metabolism. Glucose is absorbed directly into the tissues of the body while fructose must be processed in the liver first. This leads to decreased feeling of fullness and overeating.
Fructose breakdown also produces byproducts that are associated with neurodegenerative diseases, heart disease, asthma, and diabetes. Fructose consumption is also associated with a fatty liver similar to what occurs with excess alcohol consumption.
Why is it so hard to quit?
Not only is sugar hidden in many of the beverages and processed foods we consume, it is also highly addictive.
High sugar foods trigger the release of dopamine which stimulates our reward/motivation pathways in the brain. These are the same pathways that are stimulated by drugs and other substances and behaviors that people become addicted to. This can lead to overconsumption and addictive behavior.
As we were evolving as humans in environments where food was often scarce, the development of these pathways was advantageous to store up fuel when high calorie foods were available. However, in our current environment where high calorie foods are always readily available, this becomes a problem. In the past, a sugar binge might occur after discovering a berry bush, but in our society today, it often involves overeating highly caloric processed foods that affect the body differently.
Studies have shown that rats that were given access to sugar for a day and then a day of deprivation showed bingeing, withdrawal, and craving behaviors resembling opiate addiction. When these mice were then given opioid drugs, they showed withdrawal symptoms similar to mice with long-term opioid use showing that similar pathways are activated in the brain.
For tips on breaking your sugar habit, click here.
To read more about the impact of sugar on your brain and body, click here.
How can we limit our sugar intake?
Here are 6 tips for limiting sugar intake:
1. Avoid sugary beverages
Check the nutrition information for all the beverages you consume including the tea and coffee drinks you order and the seemingly healthy juices and other drinks you consume. You will be surprised at how much sugar they contain. Fruit juices should not be given to very young children and should be watered down to lower their sugar content when given to older children.
2. Limit processed foods
Processed foods often contain added sugars and refined carbohydrates like white flour that break down very easily into sugars once inside the body. Food labels are now required to report the amount of added sugar in every product. Also, check food labels for any ingredients ending in “ose” such as high fructose corn syrup or sucrose which are just different types of sugar.
3. Eat more whole foods
Whole foods are the foods that aren’t processed foods including vegetables, fruits, and meat. These foods contain no added sugar. Any naturally occurring sugar in these foods is accompanied by fiber and other nutrients that cause it to be processed differently by the body.
4. Choose high fiber foods
When fiber is consumed with sugar, it slows its absorption leading to lower blood sugar spikes and greater feelings of fullness which prevent overeating. Skin should be left on fruits whenever possible as the fiber in the skin counteracts the sugar content of the fruit. If you are going to eat grains, choose whole grains over refined grains as these have higher fiber.
5. Eat more protein and healthy fats
Protein and fat make us feel fuller faster than sugar and carbohydrates so consuming them prevents overeating. Additionally, when we buy low fat versions of processed foods, they tend to contain more added carbs and sugar than the full-fat variety.
6. Be wary of seemingly healthy processed foods
Processed foods and beverages that are marketed as healthier alternatives can still contain a lot of added sugar. Seemingly healthier versions of breads, cereals, crackers, and snack bars can still contain high levels of sugar and refined carbs. Even 100% fruit juice with no added sugar still contains high levels of sugar with no fiber and can be almost as damaging as a soda. Alternatives to table sugar like honey and maple syrup are still high-sugar products and should not be consumed in excess. Products containing calorie-free sugar substitutes also have negative health consequences. Your brain still perceives the sweet taste which can lead to overeating and some can even hurt your gut microbiome.