How much sugar are we really eating?
Sugar has become a hot topic. In excess it makes us fat. The problem is that MOST of us are eating it in excess. We’re probably eating more than we think because it hides in MANY everyday “non-sugar” foods such as tomato sauce, fat-free salad dressings, marinades, crackers, yogurt, bread etc. According to Forbes, American adults are eating 22 tsp of sugar per day and what I found even more horrifying is that the average American child eats 32 tsp of sugar per day!!! WHAT?!?!
The American Heart Association recommends that most women get no more than 100 calories a day of added sugar from any source, and that most men get no more than 150 calories a day of added sugar. That’s about 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and 9 teaspoons for men.
According to the American Heart Association, children up to age 8 should take in no more than 3 to 4 teaspoons of added sugar per day. Older kids and teenagers should limit themselves to no more than 5 to 8 teaspoons of added sugar each day. Wow – we are REALLY exceeding the recommended amounts!!!
Why is sugar bad?
There are many names of sugar but let’s talk about one of the most common types of sugar – table sugar – white sugar also called sucrose. It originates from sugar cane or sugar beets but is highly processed. When we ingest sucrose, our bodies use enzymes to break it down into 2 (equal) compounds – GLUCOSE and FRUCTOSE.
Glucose is our body’s main energy source. It is found in every living cell on the planet. Glucose is essential and when we don’t consume enough of it, our bodies manufacture it. It comes from the carbohydrates (grains, veggies, fruits ) that we eat. Glucose is either used immediately for energy or stored in the muscle cells or liver as glycogen for later use. Insulin is secreted in response to glucose in the bloodstream and facilitates the entry of glucose into our cells. The secretion of insulin is a good thing because it causes the hormone leptin to be released. Leptin is an appetite controlling hormone that tells us when we are full.
Fructose on the other hand, has a different metabolic pathway and is not a preferred energy source for our muscles or brain. We have no physiological need for fructose and our bodies do not manufacture it. Fructose can only be metabolized in the liver (putting additional strain on our liver). Fructose is more lipogenic or fat-producing than glucose. It does not stimulate the production of insulin and as a result does not trigger leptin. In fact, studies have shown that fructose raises our levels of grehlin (the hunger hormone and signals us to eat!)
If we eat small amounts of fructose it is not a problem and the fructose will be broken down into glycogen (like glucose is) and stored in the liver for later use. The problem arises when our liver is full of glycogen (which is becoming common) and we eat a lot of fructose, this overloads our liver and forces the fructose to form into fat. This can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (which is the most common liver disorder is developed countries).
One of the popular sweeteners used today is High Fructose Corn Syrup (read a label of any processed food and you are sure to find it!). HFCS consists of 55% fructose and 42% glucose (and 3% other sugars). Fructose is twice as sweet as glucose and this syrup mixture became (in the 1960’s) a inexpensive alternative to sucrose. There is a debate on whether table sugar is worse than HFCS but two things are for sure – High Fructose Corn Syrup is genetically modified, and a highly processed substance. This form of sweetener is in SO many packaged foods and is definitely one to avoid.
I just need to pause and make an important point VERY clear. You may be reading this and think to yourself “Fruit contains fructose so therefore I must stop eating fruit because it is going to make me fat”. I need to tell you emphatically that thinking is WRONG!! And here is one of the best explanations that I found in an article from Scientific American:
“Drinking a soda or binging on ice cream floods our intestines and liver with large amounts of loose fructose. In contrast, the fructose in an apple does not reach the liver all at once. All the fiber in the fruit—such as cellulose that only our gut bacteria can break down—considerably slows digestion. Our enzymes must first tear apart the apple’s cells to reach the sugar sequestered within.”
Do you see the difference? Eating fruit will NOT make you fat. Fruit is a WHOLE food. It has antioxidants, vitamins and fibre. It has not been processed so our bodies must process it. Loose fructose coming from a highly processed food just slides right into our liver – bam!
This article went on to give a great example of how fruit will not make your gain weight. “In a small but intriguing study, 17 adults in South Africa ate primarily fruit—about 20 servings with approximately 200 grams of total fructose each day—for 24 weeks and did not gain weight, develop high blood pressure or imbalance their insulin and lipid levels.”
I would hazard a guess that you don’t even come close to eating 20 servings of fruit a day so you are safe!!
Just in case you are still not convinced that you should give up sugar, here are some dangers of excess sugar that you may not know about. Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D., highlighted these studies in her article in the Huffington Post:
- – A 2013 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association provided strong evidence that sugar can affect the pumping mechanism of your heart and could increase the risk for heart failure.
- – A 2012 paper in the journal Nature showed evidence that fructose and glucose in excess can have a toxic effect on the liver similar to the metabolism of ethanol — the alcohol contained in alcoholic beverages.
- A 2009 study found a positive relationship between glucose consumption and the aging of our cells. Sugar actually promotes wrinkles.
- A 2010 study in children found that excess fructose intake (but not glucose intake) actually caused visceral fat cells to mature — setting the stage for a big belly and even bigger future risk for heart disease and diabetes.
- A 2012 study found that excess sugar consumption was linked to deficiencies in memory and overall cognitive health.
- A 2013 study estimated that 180,000 deaths worldwide may be attributed to sweetened beverage consumption. The United States alone accounted for 25,000 deaths in 2010. The authors summarize that deaths occurred due to the association with sugar-sweetened beverages and chronic disease risk such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
So what CAN you use to sweeten your food? That is a GREAT question. There are many options and the surprising thing about these natural sweeteners is that they have great nutritional value!
Here are my 5 favourite natural sweeteners that we use in our house:
- Raw Honey – unlike white sugar (that is basically empty calories), raw honey contains B Vitamins (I like to think the Bees are giving us “B” vitamins), enzymes, antioxidants, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc and phosphorous. You do not want to cook with raw honey. Use it raw for it’s best nutritional value – for example, on hot oatmeal, toast, yogurt, salad dressings etc.
- Stevia – it comes from a plant in South America. It has zero calories and zero carbohydrate. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar so you do NOT use it in the same ratio as sugar. It is heat stable so it is great to use in baking.
- Dates – come from a tree. Dates contain potassium, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and vitamin B6. They are easily digested and help to metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates. They can also be used in baking.
- Coconut Sugar – contains iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorous. It is low glycemic so it won’t spike your insulin. It is easy to substitute for white sugar because it measures the exact same in baking. I find it makes things slightly less sweet.
- Maple Syrup – contains manganese, calcium, potassium, and zinc. It is rich with antioxidants, so it will neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage. Select darker, Grade B maple syrups because they contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups.
Those are my personal favourites. I hope you feel compelled to reduce your sugar intake. Take baby steps if you need to. Your body will thank you. You will feel SO much better!