Sugar Ain’t So Sweet

TL;DR – Eating too much sugar is bad for you, especially added sugars. Simple diet tweaks can cut a lot of sugar from your diet and reduce your risk of a number of health conditions.

When we hear the word sugar, most people think of things like ice cream, cookies, cakes, candy, etc. What about bread? French Fries? Spaghetti Sauce? In the American diet we eat a lot of sugar, and it often isn’t as obvious as it seems. We are going to take a look at a diet that most people would consider to be fairly healthy, and see how much sugar is actually lurking there.

As with all of my blog posts, I like to explain why we even care about the topic. Well to put it simply, too much sugar is hard on your body. Sugar has been linked in studies to a variety of conditions including cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. (1-5) Remember 2 seconds ago when I mentioned that Type 2 diabetes was associated with excessive sugar intake? Well it gets worse from that. Type 2 diabetes was associated with decreased cognitive function and accelerated aging of the brain. Meaning that excessive sugar intake can lead to mental decline; making it more difficult to learn new things and recall memories. (6) While all of those things sound unpleasant enough, it turns out sugar also causes inflammation. Which means that chronic inflammatory conditions like arthritis (among many others) can be made worse by excessive sugar intake.(7)

Unfortunately, Americans consume a lot of sugar:

Meal Food Grams of Sugar Calories
Breakfast 1 Cup Raisin Bran 18 185
½ Cup 1% Milk 6 51
1 Cup Coffee with 1 Sugar Packet 4 15
Morning Snack 1 Medium Apple 19 95
Lunch Turkey Sandwich* 4 214
15 Baked BBQ Potato Chips 3 120
1 Can of Coca-Cola 39 150
Afternoon Snack 1 Chocolate Chip Cookie** 14 120
1 Cup Coffee with 1 Sugar Packet 4 15
Dinner 1 Cup Zucchini Noodles 3 33
½ cup Prego Sauce 10 70
1 Piece Garlic Toast 2 80
Evening Snack 1 Cup Fruit Salad 14 124
Miscellaneous 2 Wint-O-Green Lifesavers 7 30

*Turkey Sandwich = 2 slices whole wheat bread, slice of cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, 4 thin cut slices of turkey, mustard

**Chocolate Chip Cookie is from https://amyshealthybaking.com

Now most people would think of this as a pretty good day of eating. I didn’t get any fast food. The only real indulgences were the cookie and the can of soda. Well, the total grams of sugar? Drumroll….147 grams! This diet also, only included 1320 calories…yikes! What the heck is going on? What if you substituted a cup of chocolate ice cream instead of fruit salad at night? Add 20 grams of sugar and 162 more calories. What if that afternoon coffee was a second soda? That’s 35 more grams of sugar and 135 more calories. The scariest part if you’re doing the math is that even with those things, we are still only at 1617 calories, while being at 202 grams of sugar! The average American male eats 1000 more calories a day than that (8) – how many more grams of sugar do you think they are adding?

So why are we so hooked on sugar? Well research suggests that sugar can actually be addictive. Sugar can actually change the way your brain works on a neurochemical level and can lead to behaviors of addiction – Bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and cross-sensitization. (9) Dopamine is a chemical in our brain which is a major part of our reward system – meaning it gives us a feeling of pleasure. Well sugar, actually causes the release of dopamine, and so quite literally, it gives us pleasure to eat it. Unfortunately, the more sugar we eat, the less intense the pleasure effect becomes, so we crave more sugar to get the same pleasure result. (10)

What can we do? The answer is actually fairly simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy. Eat more whole foods. Here is another example of a day of eating:

 

Meal Food Grams of Sugar Calories
Breakfast 1 Cup of Oatmeal with 2 teaspoons of sugar and cinnamon 8 330
1 Cup of Coffee 0 0
Morning Snack 1 Cup Raspberries 5 65
1 String Cheese 0 80
Lunch Turkey Sandwich 4 214
¼ Cup Almonds 2 200
1 Glass Iced Tea with 2 Sugar Packets 8 30
Afternoon Snack 1 Biscotti 9 110
1 Cup of Coffee 0 0
Dinner 1 Cup Zucchini Noodles 3 33
1 Diced Tomato 3 25
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil 0 100
1 Tablespoon Parmesan Cheese 0 22
1 Garden Salad With Grilled Chicken and Italian Dressing 3 164
Evening Snack 1 Cup Strawberries 7 49
Miscellaneous Mouthwash 2X 0 0

 

The totals for this day worth of eating – 52 grams of sugar and 1422 calories. That is 65% less sugar!

Now the take away from this article definitely is NOT to use artificial sweeteners. While they do reduce calories and sugar, it turns out they create the exact same problems, and sometimes even increase your risk. They have been shown to be linked with obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even type 2 diabetes. (11-12) The goal is to show that sugar hides in some seemingly innocent foods like raisin bran; and sometimes it isn’t hiding, but we underestimate the amount, such as soda. By switching to things like tea and homemade oatmeal, we can control the amount of sugar. You will be surprised at how much less sugar it takes to make something taste sweet enough when you are doing it yourself. Want a little self test? When you are home take a teaspoon and a plate. Then scoop out a teaspoon for every 4 grams of sugar in whatever food you are looking at eating, and decide if the pile of sugar in front of you seems like an appropriate amount to eat. This visual can really help you understand how much sugar is lurking in some foods.

Hopefully, you can take this information, make some simple changes to your diet, and reduce your risk of a number of potentially deadly diseases, as well as reducing pain and inflammation. That will definitely make life a little more sweet.

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9298574
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8123778
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23460912
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15328324
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26376619
  6. http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/sugar-and-brain
  7. https://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/arthritis-diet/foods-to-avoid-limit/food-ingredients-and-inflammation-2.php
  8. https://www.livestrong.com/article/327754-how-many-calories-does-the-average-american-eat-daily/
  9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763407000589
  10. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/01/15/262741403/why-sugar-makes-us-feel-so-good
  11. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170717091043.htm
  12. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/sep/14/artificial-sweeteners-raise-risk-of-type-2-diabetes-study-suggests