One hundred and fifty-six pounds. That’s how much added sugar Americans consume each year on a per capita basis, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Imagine it: 31 five-pound bags for each of us. That’s not to say that we get most of the sugar in our diets directly from the sugar bowl. Only about 29 pounds of it comes as traditional sugar, or sucrose, according to The Sugar Association, a trade group of sugar manufacturers. The rest comes from foods.
Where is all that sugar going? In the U.S. diet, the major source of “added sugar” — not including naturally occurring sugars, like the fructose in fruit — is soft drinks. They account for 33% of all added sugars consumed, says Kristine Clark, PhD, RD, a spokeswoman for the Sugar Association. Clark is also director of sports nutrition in the athletic department of Penn State University.
And it is causing major health problems.
Sugar and Heart Disease
Researchers have found a link between sugar and unhealthy levels of blood fats. “There’s an association between added sugar intake and what we call dyslipidemia — higher triglycerides and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol, according to Rachel K. Johnson, RD, MPH, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association (AHA). In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), people who ate the largest amounts of added sugar had the highest blood triglyceride levels and the lowest HDL (good) cholesterol levels. That study also showed that eating lots of sugar more than tripled the odds of having low HDL cholesterol levels, a strong risk factor for heart disease. In contrast, people who ate the least sugar had the lowest triglyceride levels and highest HDL levels, a protective factor against heart disease.
While researchers have not yet found a direct link between sugar consumption and diabetes, many believe that the obesity that can result from too much sugar in the diet may lead to diabetes. This is especially true for children.
Sugar and Inflammation
Chronic low-grade inflammation is intimately involved in all stages of atherosclerosis, the process that leads to cholesterol-clogged arteries. This means that inflammation sets the stage for heart attacks, most strokes, peripheral artery disease, and even vascular dementia, a common cause of memory loss. Researchers have discovered that a diet heavy in sugar is one of the contributing factors to inflammation.
Natural Sugars Aren’t Healthier
Celebrities and high-profile chefs have touted the benefits of replacing refined white sugar with more natural, healthier sugars, such as honey, maple syrup, or molasses. However, medical researchers say there is no truth to these assertions. The bottom line: All these “healthier” substitutes are simple sugars.
Says Rachael Johnson, “A calorie of sugar is a calorie of sugar, so whether you’re getting it from white sugar or some other type of sweetener, you’re still adding empty calories to your diet.” However, there may be one redeeming quality, she says. “Some of those sweeteners — like maple syrup, molasses, honey — may have a stronger taste, so you might be able to get the sweetness that you want with less of it, using less calories.”
Our Sugar Addiction
Getting away from sugar may be difficult. Today added sugar is everywhere, used in approximately 75 percent of packaged foods purchased in the United States.
Sugar stimulates brain pathways just as an opioid would, and sugar has been found to be habit-forming in people. Cravings induced by sugar are comparable to those induced by addictive drugs like cocaine and nicotine. And although other food components may also be pleasurable, sugar may be uniquely addictive in the food world. For instance, functional M.R.I. tests involving milkshakes demonstrate that it’s the sugar, not the fat, that people crave. Sugar is added to foods by an industry whose goal is to engineer products to be as irresistible and addictive as possible.
In the final analysis, reducing the danger from sugar may come down to commonsense - using moderation when it comes to sugar intake and substituting whole, natural foods for packaged foods.