It’s been a dizzying past few years in the public health wars. First came the welcome reprieve that eating fat probably wouldn’t hasten our deaths. Then we learned that fewer of us have gluten sensitivities than we had previously thought. Now sugar is in the spotlight as public enemy number one. And anti-sugar advocates aren’t sitting back.
This spring, the World Health Organization made a bold move by urging people to restrict their sugar intake to less than five percent of total calories. That’s a sharp drop from the 16 percent that Americans consume on average, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the agency proposed changing food labels for the first time in a decade to reflect the amount of sugar added during the production process. And last month, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a damning report on the sweet stuff. It alleged that food and beverage manufacturers and industry groups that make sweeteners have spread misinformation and launched a sketchy public relations campaign to downplay serious health risks.
Sugar: It’s That Bad
“The new paradigm hypothesizes that too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick.”
We’re used to hearing about the evils of high-fructose corn syrup: It’s the demon driving our obesity epidemic because its chemical makeup enters the bloodstream more quickly than plain sugar. Yet new research shows that even pure cane sugar might be just as bad for you. It’s long been implicated in a host of health ills, such as obesity, diabetes and an increased risk of cancer. It’s now regarded as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease as well as other chronic diseases, including liver cirrhosis and dementia.
A 15-year study released this spring for the Journal of the American Heart Association Internal Medicine concluded that people who consumed more than a quarter of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die than those who restricted their intake to less than 10 percent of total calories, regardless of age, sex, level of activity and body-mass index.
“The new paradigm hypothesizes that…too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick,” writes Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, of the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California at San Francisco, in the accompanying commentary “New Unsweetened Truths About Sugar.” That’s not the mention the toll sugar takes on mental health, including increased risk of depression.
More Addictive Than Cocaine
“More than 70 percent of Americans eat at least 22 teaspoons of added sugar daily.”
Perhaps even more alarming is the growing body of evidence showing that we can’t stop ourselves from eating it. Recent research with rats suggests that sugar is addictive and stimulates the brain’s reward centers even more robustly than cocaine. In other words, going on a “sugar bender” isn’t just a culturally sanctioned excuse to roast another artisanal marshmallow this summer. It’s a neurobiological event that is responsible for keeping the majority of Americans in extra large cargo shorts.
“Our heads say ‘I don’t want this,’ but our bodies say ‘I need this.’ People don’t even understand they’re addicted,” explains anti-sugar crusader Nancy Appleton, PhD, author of Suicide By Sugar: A Startling Look at Our #1 National Addiction. “They’re not even aware of how many products it’s in.”
More than 70 percent of Americans eat at least 22 teaspoons of added sugar daily, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. That number sounds like a lot, until you realize you could easily hit that mark with a fruit-flavored yogurt, a couple tablespoons of barbecue sauce and a small sweet tea. If you follow WHO’s recommendation of eating no more than five percent of your total calories as added sugar, you’re limited to roughly six teaspoons as part of a 2,000-calorie diet. That’s what’s in a cup of granola or a couple packets of maple-flavored instant oatmeal.
Not in the Name of Fitness
One of the worst offenders are sweetened beverages, and one study estimated that 180,000 deaths worldwide could be attributed to sugary drinks. But it’s not just those giant sodas that Mayor Michael Bloomberg unsuccessfully tried to ban in New York City. Those 20-ouncers of Gatorade contain a whopping nine teaspoons of sugar.
“If you’re going to the gym for 60 minutes or less, you don’t need added sugar, and you probably don’t need to be slamming Gatorade on your drive to the gym,” explains Fabio Comana, professor of exercise science at San Diego State University and spokesperson for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. “All you need is water. Your diet will give you everything you need.”
The exception: If you’re doing intense exercise for at least 90 minutes. His rule of thumb: A 150-pound person needs 48 grams of carbohydrates per hour of exercise, and a sports drink can be a good source.
Be Wary of the Fake Stuff
“It will take a long time for companies to respond, unless they can come up with something else that people enjoy as much as sugar.”
Forget the substitutes, too. Even though diet sodas can taste like the real thing these days, they may not be any healthier in the long run. Researchers at Purdue University recently reviewed a dozen studies on the health impacts of diet soda and linked it to obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. It turns out that artificial sweeteners can throw your metabolism out of whack and make you crave more sweetness, just like regular sugar.
And, no matter how careful you are to avoid the real thing, you still have to be extra vigilant to watch for added sugars lurking in what seem like healthy foods, such as energy bars or bottled tomato sauce. They’re empty calories, explains Toby Smithson, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Check the labels,” she says. “Added sugar drives up calories without adding nutritional benefits.”
Educating the public about the hidden sources of sugar might be the most effective tool we have to reduce consumption for now, says Suicide By Sugar author Nancy Appleton. The popularity of the recently released documentary Fed Up, which blames the food industry and government for pushing sugar and creating the child obesity, epidemic is a sign the message is slowly reaching the mainstream.
“It will take a long time for companies to respond, unless they can come up with something else that people enjoy as much as sugar,” she says. “They know it’s addictive and that people will come back for more.”