Hey, Sugar—What's the Scoop?

If you’re like most of my friends, family, and clients, you, too, are completely confused by the deafening chatter surrounding the dangers of sugar.  How can something that tastes so terrific, seems so benign, and is a mainstay for holidays, gatherings, and celebrations, suddenly become so harmful? 

The answer is both simple and complex. Simple, because we have vastly increased the quantity of sugar we consume, an amount that our bodies are simply not able to metabolize. And complex, because we have also profoundly changed the forms of sugar that we are consuming, forms that are neither naturally occurring nor healthfully metabolized. And it is the confluence of these two variables that has resulted in an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, liver disease, and more.

Demonization of Fat Led to Increased Sugar Intake

In the 1970s, when obesity and heart disease were on the rise, we all believed that dietary fat was the villain. After all, it made sense that eating too much fat made you fat. (As it turns out, that was a faulty premise based on research that has since been reevaluated, but that’s a story for another day!) 

As more and more low-fat foods were being developed in test kitchens, it became clear that something was going to have to be done to make them even remotely palatable. And how might that be achieved? You guessed it! Add more sugar.  Sugar became so much in vogue that by the 1990s, even sugary drinks were promoted as part of a healthy lifestyle. The American Heart Association itself suggested that high-fat products be substituted for sugary ones such as honey, hard candy, breakfast cereals, and other lower fat products. 

Today, we not only find high amounts of sugar in the obviously sweet foods such as soda, candy, cookies, cakes, ice cream, and other desserts. But sugar is also added to more than 60 percent of processed foods. It's lurking in your tomato sauce. Yogurt. Hamburger buns. Salad dressing. Ketchup. Peanut butter. And just about everything else that bears a label.

As a result of this epic rise in added sugar, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, in one year, the average American consumes the equivalent in refined sugar of one normal-sized human being—somewhere between 150 and 170 pounds. When compared to the equivalent of 20 teaspoons per year that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed, it’s easy to see how our metabolisms have been hijacked.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Rears its Ugly Head 

This huge increase in sugar consumption wreaks even more havoc on our health because the majority of this sugar is consumed in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is an industrial food product and far from a naturally occurring substance. HFCS is extracted from corn stalks and results in a chemically and biologically novel compound that is metabolized far differently than is cane sugar itself.

The main problem with sugar, and in particular, processed fructose such as HFCS, is that your liver has a very limited capacity to metabolize it. According to renowned neuro-endocrinologist Robert H. Lustig, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at University of California, San Francisco, we can safely metabolize about six teaspoons of added sugar per day. But the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, more than our ancestors did in one year. This means that this excess sugar is metabolized into body fat, starts a cascade of unhealthy events, and leads to many of the chronic metabolic diseases including Type II diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, dementia, cancer, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and more.

So What’s A Health-Conscious Person To Do?

  • Become an avid label reader. Ingredients are listed from most to least, so keep that in mind when reading the label. 
  • When looking for added sugar on the label, look for not only “sugar” and “ HFCS,” but many of sugar’s aliases, such as molasses, dried cane syrup, invert sugar, sucrose (or any word ending in "-ose"), brown rice syrup, honey, and maple syrup. 
  • Choose whole fruit rather than juice, as the fiber in the fruit slows down the absorption of the naturally occurring fructose, thereby keeping your blood sugar more stable. 
  • When eating foods with sugar, pair them with some protein and healthy fat. Suggestions include avocados, nuts, natural peanut or almond butter, and hummus. The combination will keep you full longer, and will help keep your blood sugar more stable. 
  • Be especially cautious when reaching for any product labeled “low-fat,” as there is likely to be added sugar for flavor.
  • Purchase foods that are labeled “unsweetened” or “no added sugar.”
  • Experiment with different spices and flavorings, such as vanilla extract, ginger, cinnamon, and citrus.
  • Avoid choosing sugar substituted foods such as diet cola, artificially sweetened yogurt, and sugarless gum. There is ample scientific evidence to suggest that some, if not all, artificial sweeteners are toxic, and that by continuing to eat foods that taste sweet, your body still has unhealthy metabolic responses such as increases in insulin.
  • Cut back on added sugar.