Over the years, researchers have chronicled many unhealthy trends in the American diet—like not eating enough fruits and vegetables or consuming too much saturated fat and processed foods. Recently many medical experts are focusing their attention on another danger to our health—refined sugar.
So, how did refined sugar go from being just “excess calories” for the weight conscious to a health hazard?
There is compelling medical evidence that refined sugar contributes to cancer, heart disease, metabolic disorders like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and a host of other health problems.
These findings have spawned a media blitz of books and television programs in which some medical experts are calling sugar “poison” and urging changes in public policy to regulate sugar much like alcohol and tobacco.
Natural vs. Added Sugar
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate found naturally in many foods, including fruits, vegetables and grains. If the only sugar we consumed were in natural, whole foods, there wouldn’t be a problem. But the average American diet is full of refined, nutrient-depleted foods that contain high amounts of added sugar.
As we pointed out in a previous post, How Much Sugar is Too Much?, we are consuming far more than the recommended daily limit of 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. The current U.S. average consumption is 20 teaspoons of added, refined sugar every day. However, many teenagers consume much more than that. As the leading consumer of junk food, it’s easy to see how sugar grams add up. A single 20 oz. soda contains about 60 grams (15 teaspoons) of sugar.
Problems Linked to Sugar
The list of health issues linked to added sugars is very long, but here’s a few of the major concerns:
- Sugar compromises immune function. In one study, two cans of soda (which contain 20 teaspoons of sugar) reduced the efficiency of white blood cells by 92 percent--an effect that lasts up to five hours.
- Refined sugar overworks your pancreas and adrenal glands as they struggle to keep blood sugar levels in balance. In response to sugar, your pancreas pumps out insulin to normalize blood sugar levels. This causes a sudden drop in blood sugar which triggers the adrenals to compensate with the release of cortisol. Overtime, these glands become overworked and “burn out” leading to early menopause, type 2 diabetes, hypoglycemia and chronic fatigue.
- Since sugar is devoid of nutrients, the body must use its own nutrient reserves to metabolize it. When these stores are depleted, the body becomes unable to properly metabolize fatty acids and cholesterol, leading to higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Drawing on the body's nutrient reserves can also lead to chronic mineral deficits, especially in magnesium (a mineral required for more than 300 different enzyme activities) and chromium (a trace element that regulates hormones such as insulin), putting you at risk for numerous health problems, from depression to attention deficit disorder to asthma. A recent study found that kids who eat significant amounts of junk food are much more likely to develop asthma than kids who don't.
- Researchers conducting studies of juvenile delinquency and public school children found improved test scores when sugar and white four were eliminated from their diets. Another study conducted in juvenile detention centers found that violent behavior decreased dramatically when sugar was eliminated.
- The damage sugar inflicts on the body is cumulative and may go unnoticed for many years. Experts estimate that is takes roughly 15 – 20 years of steady consumption of refined sugar and junk food before you develop a chronic disease like diabetes. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much to put you at risk. Once intake exceeds 20 teaspoons daily, the risk of chronic illness increases exponentially.
Cutting Back on Sugar
Reducing sugar intake can be difficult as humans naturally crave sweets. However, there are strategies you can employ to reduce or eliminate added sugars:
- Choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible as this eliminates added sugars from the start.
- Keep fresh fruit around to satisfy any sweet cravings.
- Instead of artificially sweetened beverages, use one sweetened with the herb stevia.
- Natural sweeteners like honey, blackstrap molasses, fruit juice, brown rice syrup, and evaporated cane juice do contain small amounts of nutrients, such as the B vitamins, iron, calcium and potassium. But these "natural" sweeteners are only marginally better than plain white table sugar and their intake should be limited.
If you do purchase processed foods like cereal, yogurt or snack foods, read the labels carefully. While the total grams of sugar listed under “Nutrition Facts” does not separate sugars naturally in whole foods vs. those added during processing, you can often determine the amount of added sugars if you can compare it to a “plain” or unsweetened version of the same product.
For example, plain yogurt will only list the sugars found in milk—about 12 grams in a 6 oz container. Therefore you’ll be able to calculate added sugar in a flavored yogurt by subtracting 12 grams from the total amount of sugar.
Another option is to purchase a large container of plain yogurt and add your own fresh fruit. You’ll save money and added sugar!
For more information and tips on how to kick the sugar habit, read The Dangers of Sugar: Is it Really That Bad?