As the holidays approach, sweets are everywhere! Each day, most of us consume two to three times more sugar than is recommended by the American Medical Association. Further compounding the problem are foods with hidden sugars. So what does this excess sugar mean for our health? Let’s take a look.
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The holidays are upon us, as are its assortment of treats in candy dishes at work, baked goods at the market, and around our homes in anticipation of visitors. Because these treats can be so small and seemingly inconsequential, it’s so easy to end up eating more calories than a full-sized candy bar by the end of the day!
Based on multiple scientific studies on human health, researchers found that excess sugar consumption can suppress your immune system, elevate your blood pressure, contribute to obesity, increase the risk for heart disease, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and can even give you wrinkles.
Our hefty sugar consumption
The American Medical Association (AMA), the FDA, and World Health Organization (WHO) all recommend limiting sugar. While the AMA is the most conservative at 24 grams for women and 36 for men, the FDA and WHO indicate that there are benefits to keeping sugar to less than 5-10% of your daily calories, or about 25-50 grams.
Yet most Americans unknowingly eat between 80-110 grams of added sugar a day. With the holidays upon us, it is far too easy to make that mistake with those obvious sugar traps of candy bars, festive drinks and baked goods. But less obvious sugar traps are often hiding in places where you might not expect it: ketchup, salad dressing, sauces, and yogurt.
For instance, a quick bowl of cereal at breakfast can provide you with your allotment of sugar for the day. Bran cereal with raisins has about 19 grams of sugar and some yogurts have as much as 17 grams of added sugar. Compare this with a candy bar that has just about as much sugar as these options at 20 grams. When you start your day with too much sugar, your body and your brain crave more.
What about the “sugar high”?
Let’s take a quick look at how sugar affects our brain. Sugar has a direct relationship to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When you eat sugar, it causes dopamine to be released and actually activates your brain’s “reward system.” This is what we believe to be the sugar high or buzz.
We’ve all experienced the phenomenon, “sugar high”, as we watch kids go bananas after wolfing down sugary treats and felt the rush ourselves after a handful of M&Ms. And we all know what follows: a sudden, crabby disposition and then, inevitably, a hard crash. Drooling and snoring are optional. But recent research indicates this “rush” may not be a reality.
In fact, the study shows how sugar actually has the reverse effect, making us more tired and lethargic. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews published a study which showed that consuming carbohydrates does not elevate our mood. They did 31 studies with 1,259 participants and found that there was no positive effect on someone’s mood following sugar consumption.
“In fact, sugar consumption was related to decreased alertness and higher levels of fatigue within the first hour post-ingestion.”
– Sugar rush or sugar crash? A meta-analysis of carbohydrate effects on mood, Mantantzis, et al.
Sugar’s effect on insulin
As sugar rises in the blood, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin is responsible for glucose uptake into the cells, where it is used for energy. It also signals the liver and muscles to convert the glucose into glycogen for storage.
When your body produces too much insulin in response to high sugar and carbohydrates in the blood, your blood pressure increases. This is because high insulin causes magnesium stores to decrease. If magnesium levels are too low, the blood vessels will not be able to fully relax, thereby causing restriction of the blood vessels and increased blood pressure.
What is the difference between glucose and fructose?
Humans need glucose for energy. But too much glucose is stored in your liver and muscles and turned into fat.
The cells in the body do not use fructose for energy, so all of the fructose you eat is metabolized in the liver. Fructose is not used as an energy source. Instead, fructose is turned into free fatty acids, very low-density lipoproteins and triglycerides, which are then stored as body fat.
Too much contributes to obesity, elevated blood pressure, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
What about the natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables?
You are not going to become obese by eating fruits and vegetables. While the body handles sugars naturally present in fruits and vegetables in a similar way to added sugars, the benefits of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber make eating fruits and veggies worthwhile for your diet.
In addition, the fiber in fruit and vegetables fills you up and slows down the rate at which your body digests the sugar, thus decreasing the glycemic impact. Aim for at least 4 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables per day.
To learn the sugar content in different fruits, the USDA provides a searchable nutrient database.
There are a lot of different types of sugar. What makes them different?
Sugar comes from many sources, but all sugars provide the same number of calories: 20 calories per teaspoon and 60 calories per tablespoon. The most common is from sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn.
Though agave has been touted as a “natural” source of sugar, be aware of its high fructose content, making it more likely to sit on your liver. However, some sugars, such as honey or coconut sugar, are marginally better because they have additional nutrients: honey has anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties and coconut sugar has minerals and antioxidants. But still, it is far better to limit all added sugars in your diet and depend on fruits and vegetables for their natural sources of sugar.
All sugars, except agave, have roughly the same ratio of fructose and glucose. Your body processes glucose and fructose the same way, no matter the source.
What are the sugar alternatives?
You do have choices to satisfy your sweet tooth. There are two kinds of alternative sweeteners: natural, such as Stevia and Tagatose, and artificial, such as Splenda, Equal and Sweet’N Low. To read more about the differences of these sweeteners, check out our post, What is an Artificial Sweetener?
The FDA has now included ‘added sugars’ in the new labeling process. These are sugars that are added during food processing or packing. A study led by researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and the University of Liverpool estimated that the new FDA labeling could prevent or postpone nearly 1 million cases of cardiometabolic disease, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes over a 20 year period. For more on labeling, check out our D2D post on nutrition facts.
The Bottom Line:
During the holidays, enjoy your sweet treats in moderation, and be cognizant of hidden sugar sources. Whether you are consuming honey, agave, high fructose corn syrup, or table sugar, it all has the same effect on your body. Consider eliminating added sugars as a secret to managing your health.