Below is the transcript of a speech I am giving on sugar. Important food for thought as we enter the heart of the Holiday Season...and its accompanying temptations.
How much sugar do you eat in a day? Do you know? Do you look at the nutrition label and ingredients on a package before you eat? If you’re like the average American, chances are high that you’re consuming too much. According to the University of California San Francisco, “the average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) every day. That translates into about 66 pounds of added sugar consumed each year, per person.” The thing is, it’s really easy to eat too much sugar because it’s hidden in so many of the packaged foods we eat. Even foods disguised as “healthy” with clever labeling like “gluten-free” and “low-fat.”
So what’s the deal with sugar? Why is it so bad? My hope is that by the end my preaching you will have a much clearer understanding of the health risks associated with consuming too much of it over your lifetime.
You might have heard recent reports in the news about the increased incidence of obesity and overweight adults in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that 37.9% of adults in the U.S. over the age of 20 are obese, 70.7% are overweight, including obese. Compare these numbers to 1988, when 22.3% of adults were obese and 54.9% were overweight including obese. With all the low-fat, low-carb, diet-obsessed crazes in our culture, why are these numbers on the rise? Shouldn’t they be going in the opposite direction?
As a Dietetics student studying clinical nutrition, I am obsessed with health, but I haven’t always so healthy. I fell into the same trap most people, especially athletes, did in the 90’s to early 2000’s—yes, I’m a lot older than I look. We were told to eat low fat, high carbohydrate diets. The science that supported claims that fat was the culprit behind heart disease and other chronic diseases was faulty at best and has never actually been proven to be true. In fact, many studies in recent years have actually contradicted much of what we were told for over 20 years.
Before I go into why added sugars are bad for you, let’s take a look at what they are and where you will find them.
“Refined” or “added” sugar is sugar that isn’t naturally occurring in food. Fruit, dairy products, potatoes, and other whole foods have natural sugar in them. Cookies, candy, and soda are packaged foods that have sugar added to them.
You might be surprised to know that “healthy” foods have added sugars in them too. Shredded wheat cereal, for example, contains 11 grams of sugar per serving. Those breakfast bars, like chewy bars or cliff bars? They have 7 to 11 grams per serving, sometimes even more! A six-ounce container of Dannon yogurt has 24 grams of sugar. Most of us don’t stick to one serving unless the food is pre-measured. So it’s easy to see how those grams can add up really quickly.
How can you spot these sugar culprits? By looking at food labels. Fresh produce isn’t labeled because there is nothing added to it. It’s packaged food that’s sneaky.
You want to look at the nutrition label and check the “sugars” section. By the summer of 2018, labels will start to look like this (below), so you’ll be able to see how much of the total sugar in a food is not naturally occurring in it.
Next, you want to look at the Ingredients section. There are many names for sugar, but here are some of the main offenders: agave, brown sugar, corn syrup/high-fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, molasses, Anhydrous/Crystal dextrose, Glucose, Maltose, Sucrose, Dextrin. If these are listed in the ingredients, especially in the first few ingredients, you should steer clear of that food.
Now that you know what added sugars are and where to find them, let’s get real and talk about the risks to your health.
Nutritionists dislike added sugars for a few reasons. The most significant are: It has well-known links to weight gain. It also has no nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are vital to our health, so it’s packed with “empty calories” that often take the place of healthy foods from a person’s diet.
Beyond that, eating 17 to 21% of your calories from sugar increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 38% compared to people who consume only 8% of their calories from sugar—this data coming from the American Heart Association
Sugar also effects insulin levels and our body’s natural hunger signals. This can lead to metabolic disorders and weight gain, as well as leptin-resistance. Leptin is a hormone that tells our brain when we’re full so that we’ll stop eating. When insulin is too high, leptin can stop sending that signal to our brain, so we don’t know we’re full. This leads to overeating.
Processed sugars cause inflammation in the body. Inflammation is our body’s natural response to threats from germs, toxins, injury, stress, and more. However, chronic inflammation can have really damaging effects on the body and has been linked to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Of course, sugar is also highly addictive. It causes dopamine to be released in the reward center of our brain, just like addictive drugs. This leads to cravings and another reason for overeating.
Since sugar is linked to so many potential health risks, what are some healthier alternatives you can start incorporating into your diet today?
Keeping in mind that the World Health Organization recommends that no more than 10% of an adult’s calories—and ideally less than 5%-- should come from added sugars, there are a lot of naturally sweet foods you can start eating more of to stay within healthy limits.
Fruit is a great alternative in its whole and natural form, and offers many health benefits, from immune system boosting antioxidants, to other important vitamins and minerals. It can also be used in desserts and other sweet treat recipes in place of sugar. I use dates, bananas, and berries in most of my recipes and you can’t tell they don’t have added sugar.
Alternative sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit are a great replacement for sugar as well. They’re both naturally derived from a plant and fruit, have zero calories and no sugar.
Some sugar alcohols, like Xylitol and Erythritol are OK substitutes as well. They are low calorie and Xylitol actually offers health benefits like improved dental health and increased absorption of calcium.
As you can see, there are quite a few healthy alternatives to added sugars, so removing them from your life isn’t that hard to do. It takes a bit more time, planning and commitment for sure, but in the long run, it’s worth it.
We live in a world filled with added sugars found in so many of the packaged foods we eat. We’ve gotten used to them, crave them, and even eat them in place of the healthy foods we need to thrive. We do it because sugar tastes really good. However, the associated health risks when you consume added sugars for a long time, just aren’t worth it. I encourage each and every one of you to start looking at food labels and ingredients and start replacing added sugars with natural, healthier alternatives as often as possible. There's nothing sweeter than a healthy, long life.
http://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/the-growing-concern-of-overconsumption/#.Wfi4WNOGMdU (University of California San Francisco)—World Health Organization Stats also sourced from
https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus16.pdf#053 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Added-Sugars_UCM_305858_Article.jsp#.WfjiTdOGMdV (American Heart Association)