Is the War Against Sugar Fair?

Sugar joins the ranks of fat and carbohydrates as the next big "demon" food.

Posted May 31, 2013

The war against sugar is officially on. Disney announced plans to stop advertising sugar-soaked candy, cakes and fruit drinks to kids on its television channels. New York City is trying to ban large sugary drinks sold in restaurants, theaters and other venues. Schools are offering more fruits and vegetables in school lunches and snacks. Even Coke and Pepsi are introducing low-sugar options.

The country’s obesity epidemic can’t be ignored, nor can sugar’s place in the blame game. But is sugar really the menace it’s been made out to be?

 A Hidden Danger

Most people know that consuming too much sugar increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, highblood pressure and other health problems. What most people don’t realize is how much sugar theyactually consume each day. Even those that steer away from sweets like soda, cookies and candy and refrain from adding sugar to their coffee or tea may still be consuming many times the recommended amount.

About 13 percent of American adults’ daily calories come from added sugars. That’s significantly higher than the 10 percent of total energy intake recommended by the World Health Organization. The American Heart Association reports that sugar intake needs to come down from 22 teaspoons to six teaspoons (100 calories) per day for women and nine teaspoons (150 calories) per day for men. Even at these levels, some argue the risk is too high to adequately protect public health.

Most of the sugars people consume are in the form of high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Beyond the obvious culprits, sugar is packed into most processed, packaged foods including some that are widely believed to be healthy such as granola bars, yogurt, breakfast cereal, light salad dressings, soups, and sauces like ketchup, barbecue sauce, salsa and spaghetti sauce.

 Elimination or Moderation?

There’s little question sugar is problematic. It’s full of empty calories with no nutritional value. It also makes us feel less full than we would if we actually consumed the same number of calories in real food, brain scans show, which can lead to weight gain. High sugar intake may also increase the production of fat and triglycerides in the liver, leading to a number of health problems.

A small amount of sugar can be processed by the body, but in the amounts we consume it, sugar can be toxic, according to research by pediatric endocrinologist and childhood obesity expert Robert Lustig of the University of California-San Francisco. Because it activates the same reward centers of the brain as cocaine, heroin and other mood-altering drugs, research suggests sugar may be addictive.

Although sugar is linked to obesity, we can’t focus on it to the exclusion of other factors, including genetics, socioeconomic issues, total calorie intake (which has increased about 500 calories since 1970 even as sugar consumption has leveled off), portion size, the rise of fast food, and sedentary lifestyles.

Refining Your Palate

So what should sugar lovers do? The answer isn’t eliminating all sugar from your diet, nor would that be plausible for most Americans. Demonizing a single ingredient has backfired in the past. When people jumped on the fat-free fad, they consumed even more sugar, which only exacerbated the obesity problem. Here’s a more effective approach:

Read Food Labels. It requires detective work to determine how much sugar you’re really eating. Food labels do not differentiate between sugars intrinsically present in certain foods, such as fructose in fresh fruit, and added sugar. Search for code words like syrup, sweetener and most ingredients ending in “ose” and minimize your intake of these foods.

Limit Processed Foods and Sugary Drinks. Processed foods are packed with high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Rather than load up on ready-made meals and packaged foods, try incorporating more grass-fed meats, fish, whole grains such as oatmeal, quinoa, barley and brown rice, nuts and seeds, vegetables, eggs, and dairy products such as plain yogurt and milk. As you’re transitioning to a lower sugar diet, enjoy the natural sweetness of fruit, which will help satisfy your sugar craving while providing other essential vitamins and nutrients.

Exercise particular caution with sodas and sugary beverages. There is extensive research tying sugary drinks to obesity, heart disease, gout and type 2 diabetes. Yet half of Americans consume these beverages every day. Among teens, sugary drinks are the number-one source of calories in their diets.

Avoid Dieting. Some people interpret the research on sugar as a mandate to cut out sugar altogether. Sweets and processed foods shouldn’t be a staple in your diet but they can be an occasional treat in an otherwise balanced diet.

Others manage their weight by consuming as much sugar as they want and then cutting calories in other areas. The problem with this strategy is that thinner isn’t always healthier. As Lustig puts it, “a calorie is not a calorie.” In his research, people with greater access to sugar had higher levels of diabetes, regardless of their weight.

Cook Meals at Home Whenever Possible. When people cook their own meals, they eat healthier ingredients and smaller portions. Just one meal a week at a restaurant can translate into two extra pounds a year, the Department of Agriculture advises, yet most Americans eat out about five times per week.

Sugar isn’t inherently evil. It isn’t single-handedly causing one-third of Americans to be obese. But it isn’t harmless, either. Although a black-or-white solution might be easier to stomach, for now we have to educate ourselves and learn how to moderate our national sweet tooth.