Sugar & Your Health: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Sugar & Your Health

What is the relation between sugar and your health? Over the past 60 years, the amount of sugar consumed as part of the typical Western diet, has increased dramatically. Significant increases in sugar consumption have been documented in most countries where heavily processed food has become readily available,.

Surprisingly, some experts estimate that only 1/6 of our sugar comes from desserts (or foods that we think of as “sweets”). The majority of our sugar intake comes in the form of highly processed food and sweetened beverages. Many people are becoming aware of the need to reduce their sugar intake in order to maintain a healthy body weight. But what many people still aren’t aware of is the fact that sugar, under a variety of different pseudonyms is added to so many foods. Foods that we don’t expect to contain sugar: things like packaged breads, condiments, chips, sauces and salad dressings.

Reducing Sugar Intake

In 2015, the World Health Organization released new guidelines strongly recommending that all adults and children reduce their sugar intake to less than 10% of total calories consumed. These recommendations go on to suggest that a further reduction of sugar intake to less than 5% of total calories, would likely have additional health benefits.

These recommendations focus on “free sugars” – those that are added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer. Sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices are included. But they don’t apply to intrinsic sugars found in whole fruits and vegetables because the WHO found no reported evidence linking the consumption of intrinsic sugars to adverse health effects. The sugar that naturally occurs in milk is also excluded from that 5%.

Recommended amount of sugar for intake

For the average adult, consuming a 2,000 calorie/day diet, reducing their sugar intake to 5% would mean that, ideally, no more than 100 calories/day should come from free sugars. Since free sugars offer 4 calories of energy/gram, this would translate into approximately 25g of free sugar, about 6 teaspoons.

Six teaspoons seems like a generous allocation when you picture spooning it out of a sugar bowl. But, when you begin to look at the nutrition labels of most packaged foods, the numbers begin to add up incredibly quickly. For example, a ½ cup serving or organic granola can contain 16g (4 teaspoons) of sugar!.

If ½ cup of regular sweetened yogurt is added to that cereal for breakfast, this can add another 4 teaspoons of free sugar. With those,  you’ve already exceeded your recommended sugar intake by 2 full teaspoons. Even before leaving the house.

There’s a growing consensus that we need to cut down on our sugar consumption, and yet there may be a downside to vilifying sugar, the way we did with dietary fats. If we let the pendulum swing to the extreme once again, we could find ourselves facing new disease epidemics

Fats Good? Sugar Bad?

It’s been interesting to read the research and see the shift in attention from treating fat as the evil nutrient to treating sugar as the evil nutrient. Now we went overboard on fat.

It turns out fat is not as evil as we thought, and saturated fat is not necessarily the thing to worry most about in your diet. And in fact, our obsession with saturated fat led us to promote trans fats, which turned out to actually be lethal.

Sugar has been part of the human diet for a very long time. It’s prized by people all over the world. We have evolved to like the flavor of sugar for very good reasons. But we are eating too much of it. And I think we definitely need to cut down on the amount of sugar we’re eating. But a little bit of sugar is very powerful aid when you’re cooking. It makes food very attractive to people.

What industries need to do

Companies need to disclose added sugar, which they don’t now have to do in processed foods. It is very concerning that sugar’s being added to foods that never were sweetened before.

Things like bread now have sugar in them, and condiments of all kinds. Because if you put more sugar in the food you will sell more of it. So we need to be conscious of it but does it explain everything about our diet? No, it really doesn’t.

If we only emphasize the need to cut down on our sugar intake, without simultaneously emphasizing moderation and balance in our diet as a whole. We risk a situation where fats and animal proteins are seen by the general public as “free food” and the processed food industry, again steps in and supersize.

If this happens, we could find ourselves facing new epidemics of disease associated with a diet that is too high in fat and animal proteins, and lacking in fiber.