Why is Sugar Bad for You?
Of all the things we eat, nothing perhaps does more harm than foods that are awash in sugar. Cakes, cookies, sugar-sweetened beverages like gourmet coffee and sodas come to mind. But sugar is everywhere — in low-fat yogurt and barbecue sauces, in granola, protein bars and canned soup, in canned fruit, smoothies and even spaghetti sauce and ketchup. Most processed foods that contain extra sugar are quick and easier to consume. For this reason it is recommended to limit or reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet.
Sugar is everywhere because food manufacturers know our bodies crave it. When we consume sweet foods, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It also releases opioids, which are associated with addiction. And while there are no studies showing sugar addiction in humans, there are animal studies that do link sugar to addiction.
Of course, there are legitimate reasons food manufacturers add sugar: It gives foods flavor, texture and color; sugar preserves some foods; and it balances the acidity of some foods like tomatoes, among other things. And it makes sweet foods sweet.
Where do we consume added sugars? It’s in most premade foods: 68% of packaged foods contain sweeteners. Restaurants use it liberally in foods that might surprise you — from mac and cheese to chicken salad to soups and salads.
How Many Grams of Sugar is Okay?
The federal government recommends that Americans 2 years and older limit their sugar intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories.
On a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s only 200 calories from added sugar — or roughly 12 teaspoons. Another way to put it: there are roughly 4 grams of sugar in a teaspoon, so 48 grams of sugar is the limit on a 2,000-calorie diet. A 20-oz soda has roughly 65 grams of added sugar.
The American Heart Association recommends an even lower level of added sugar: 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men. Unfortunately, studies have shown the average intake of added sugar to be much higher — 17 teaspoons (or 68 grams) a day for adults 20 and older.
This extra sugar consumption is fueling record levels of obesity and the diseases that come with it: heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes.
Health Consequences of Too Much Sugar
More than 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. The extra weight is driving an increase in preventable diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, sleep apnea and even depression, among other conditions.
Sugar is not solely responsible for this increase — exercise patterns, overall food consumption, genetics and social and environmental factors play a role. Even so, the AHA estimates that the average American consumes more than 60 pounds of added sugar every year.
Studies show the link between excess sugar intake and weight gain, even among people who exercise. There’s the obvious reason — sugar contains calories and too many calories in and not enough calories burned leads to weight gain. But there’s the less obvious reason: Too much sugar can interrupt our bodies’ natural processes.
In particular, sugar may interfere with leptin, a hormone the body produces to regulate hunger and weight gain. Studies show that sugar may lead to leptin resistance — which can trigger obesity.
Other Names for Sugar
When you do buy processed food, pay close attention to food labels. Sugar masquerades under many different names, some of which you’re probably familiar with: corn syrup, sucrose and fructose. But there are at least 61 different ways manufacturers indicate sugar on a label. Here are some examples:
- Corn Syrup
- Fruit Juice
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Refiner’s Syrup
- Sweet Sorghum
- Corn Sweetener
- Beet Sugar
- Barley Malt
You can find a complete list of sugar monikers here.
How to Avoid Added Sugar
If you eat out a lot or consume lots of packaged foods, managing your intake of added sugar can be frustratingly difficult. But taking control of where and what you eat can help. Here are some ways you can avoid added sugar:
- Eat whole foods. Whole foods like fruit may contain sugar, but it’s not been added by a manufacturer.
- Make your own salad dressings and sauces. Even if you feel like your homemade pizza sauce needs a little sweetening, you’ll control the sugar content — not the manufacturer.
- Read labels and compare. But know what you’re looking for. Added sugar can hide under lots of sciencey names — and in plain sight. Honey, for example, may sound natural and healthy, but it’s still added sugar.
- Drink water, tea and coffee. Just don’t add anything to it. A splash of some popular coffee creamers can have more than 5 grams of added sugar per serving. Fruit juices and sugary sodas contain a ton of added sugar — avoid them.
- Use low-sugar recipes. Cooking your own food helps you manage your intake — focus on healthy recipes that use less sugar than traditional meals.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid all added sugar, but if you keep an eye on food labels and prepare more of your own food, you can hit recommended intake targets and eat a healthier diet.