Sugar and your health: The truth is not so sweet


by Ashley Kadlubar, RD

May 16, 2022

A little sugar never hurt anyone, right? Research suggests otherwise, as added sugar in the American diet accumulates at an alarming rate. Growing scientific evidence shows added sugar is linked to chronic diseases and obesity, notes SugarScience, an authoritative source for scientific evidence on sugar and its impact on health, developed by health scientists from the University of California, San Francisco.

What to know about sugar

Consider these fast facts about sugar.

Sugar is hidden in plain sight

Sugar is found in 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets, including many savory foods or items marketed as “healthy.”

Fructose is toxic

Studies show excessive consumption of fructose—one of the most common types of sugar found in fruits, vegetables, honey and most processed foods—can be toxic to the liver, just like alcohol.

Too much sugar can make you sick

Scientists increasingly focus on a common set of underlying metabolic issues that raise people’s risk for chronic disease. Eating too much sugar over the long-term increases your risk of chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, among the leading causes of death worldwide.

We eat too much sugar

Americans eat, on average, nearly 66 pounds of added sugar per person every year.

What is sugar?

Sugar can be natural or processed, but it is a simple carbohydrate our bodies use for energy. Some of the healthiest foods, such as fruits, vegetables and dairy contain natural sugar.

Sugar added to foods during processing is referred to as “added sugar.” Sugar is added to boost the flavor, help preserve foods, provide texture and color, or serve as a bulking agent in many products.

Added sugar contributes extra calories without adding much nutritional value, which can be a major diet pitfall. Excess calories can lead to weight gain and then eventually to health troubles, which can be a slippery slope for our health. Extra sugar is also linked to elevated triglyceride levels and tooth decay.

Filling up on products with added sugar could mean we are missing out on nutrient-dense products.

How much sugar is too much?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6% of calories each day.

  • For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day or about six teaspoons of sugar.
  • For men, it’s 150 calories per day or about nine teaspoons.

Recognizing added sugars is our first line of defense. The AHA recommends focusing on all added sugars without singling out a particular type, such as high-fructose corn syrup.

The best way to find added sugar is by being ingredient savvy because simply looking at the nutritional labels isn’t enough. While reading labels can be helpful, it won’t distinguish between added and natural sweeteners.

Check out the ingredients listed by weight. If sugar is in the top three, you hold a product that is likely high in added sugar. Be sure to also look for other sources of sugar, including

  • Cane juice
  • Cane syrup
  • Corn sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup)
  • Fruit nectar
  • Juice
  • Molasses
  • Malt syrup
  • Honey

How can we limit added sugars in our diet?

Try to limit fruit juice and opt for whole fruit instead. Choose breakfast cereals that contain wholesome grains and fiber and drink water instead of sodas and sports drinks.

Avoid the lure of the vending machine and pack vegetables, fruit, low-fat dairy and whole grain, high fiber crackers for snacking.

When in doubt, seek the advice of a professional. Registered dietitians are experts at helping you limit added sugar and navigate the supermarket for the healthiest products. A dietitian can help you plan and organize meals and snacks to include nutrient-dense products and avoid added sugars.

Connect with a dietitian today.

About the Author

Ashley is a registered dietitian at the weight loss surgery center at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Grapevine.

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