Sugar makes foods sweet and for many of us makes them delicious. It’s an important energy source for our bodies. It’s what we use when we’re doing vigorous activities and it’s the primary source of fuel for our brain. We need it to live. But eating too much sugar can lead to health problems over time.
What is sugar?
Sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrate. Whereas carbohydrates (or starch) from plants (fruits, vegetables) are made up of individual sugar molecules like boxcars on a train. The bag of white sugar in your kitchen cupboard is refined to break up the carbohydrates into individual sugar molecules. This gives it its sweet taste. However, our bodies are designed to digest sugar in its naturally occurring carbohydrate form found in fruits, vegetables and grains.
The gut and intestine can’t absorb sugar in the form of long carbohydrates. When you eat an apple, some broccoli or pasta, the carbohydrates have to be broken down to individual sugar molecules before being absorbed into the body. This is done in your intestine removing one sugar molecule at a time. This is like taking a long train and removing one box car at a time. In doing so, this delays how much sugar is absorbed into your body.
When we eat sugar in its simplest form, there is no chain to break down. So instead, a flood of sugar is released into the bloodstream all at once. Your body responds by releasing insulin to remove the sugar and store it for energy in muscles and organs. You may feel this fast increase in sugar as an energy rush, or sugar ‘high’. But once insulin has done its job and removed the sugar, you may feel slow, and even hungry. This is known as the sugar ‘crash’.
Sugar and Your Health
The problem with eating foods high in sugar (most commonly found in processed foods), is the rush of sugar absorbed into the body all at once. That plus your body can only store so much sugar. Any extra gets converted to fat. Over time, this can increase your chances for obesity.
A diet continually high in sugar can wear down the effect of insulin leading to more and more insulin needed to clear sugar out of the blood. This is termed insulin resistance and if it continues, insulin may no longer be effective and the amount of sugar in your blood will rise. And as blood sugar levels rise, so do one’s chances of getting diabetes.
In addition to increasing your chances for diabetes, high blood sugar levels can lead to weakening of the artery walls. This can make them leaky, allowing other particles, such as cholesterol, to enter the artery wall. This can result in the formation of plaques in the heart’s arteries and atherosclerosis. Besides diabetes, higher amounts of sugar in one’s diet are associated with heart disease, cancer and early death.
How much is too much?
The World Health Organization recommends limiting sugar intake to less than 10% of daily calories and suggests a further reduction to 5% for even more health benefits. These recommendations refer to what’s called free sugar. This is sugar added to foods during manufacturing, cooking and at the table. It also includes sugars present in honey, syrups and juices. It does not include sugars present in whole fruits and vegetables.
So what does that look like in terms of food? Each person is different, and how much you eat depends on your metabolism and daily activity. In general, women eat between 1600 and 2400 calories per day, and men between 2000 and 3000 per day. For someone eating 2000 calories per day, 10% is 200 calories. This equates to 50 grams of sugar (each gram of sugar has four calories). To put this into context, a can of pop or juice has about 40 grams of sugar. A bottle of Gatorade has 34 grams. A tablespoon of maple syrup has 14 grams. And one Oreo cookie has 6.6 grams.
Sugar intake varies from country to country. In the US, the average person has about 77 grams per day, or about 15% of daily calories. While in the UK, it’s estimated at 10% of daily calories. In Canada it’s 67 grams or 13% of daily calories.
How to Cut Down on Sugar
In the US, sugar intake has steadily increased since World War II, rose dramatically in the 1980s before peaking around 2000 and slowly decreasing since. This is likely the pattern in most countries. And while craving for sugar has been around for centuries, the increase in sugar consumption from the 1960s onward is due in part to the war on fat. This was in part, promoted by the sugar industry suppressing the harms of sugar, while saying dietary fat was the main cause of heart disease. This resulted in a boom in foods manufactured to be low in fat, yet high in sugar. And in recent years, the credibility of the original studies pointing to dietary fat as a problem has come into question.
Since most sugar comes from processed foods, reducing these foods can be a step in the right direction. Reading nutrition labels can be a guide but not always the easiest to understand. These labels often include the number of sugar grams and some include the percent of the daily maximum to help out. If not, you can look at the ingredients list. In general, ingredients are listed in order of quantity. To avoid sugar being listed first, the food industry uses different types of sugars in processed foods such as sugar, corn syrup, molasses, honey and brown sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are a popular sugar substitute for some, but these aren’t without health concerns. While sweeteners are calorie free, they are generally 100s of times sweeter than sugar. Some studies have linked artificially sweetened drinks to an increased chance of getting diabetes, dementia, stroke and early death in women.
If you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake, aim to slowly reduce how much sugar you eat. Our tastebuds change based on the foods we eat, so over time, your craving for sugar will go down. However, dramatically reducing your sugar intake, or going cold turkey, can make it hard to sustain the lower amount.
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