Are You Eating Too Much Sugar?
You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating—again and again. We’re eating way too much sugar. According to government data, 200 years ago the average American consumed two pounds of sugar annually. Today, we eat more than 60 pounds of added sugar a year (yes, that’s per person). At 113 teaspoons per pound, that’s 6,780 teaspoons every 365 days.
Considering that the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugar daily for women and nine for men, we’re far over the advised cutoffs. And while some sugar sources are obvious—like soda, candy, or the sugar you add to your coffee—the sweet stuff can sneak into your diet in unexpected ways.
Unsure about your own intake? Take our quiz below to find out if you're eating too much sugar.
The dangers of excess sugar
In my work with clients, I find that most people are aware of the links between sugar and, say, cavities, or weight gain. But many aren’t in the know about the other ways too much sugar can impact health.
The AHA’s recommended daily limit recognizes the relationship between surplus sugar and heart disease—still the number one killer of both men and women. In a nutshell, added sugar refers to the sugar added to a food by either you or a manufacturer, not the naturally-occurring sugar found in fresh fruit or sweet potatoes.
According to a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, people who consumed 17 to 21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those who consumed just 8% percent of their calories from added sugar. If you eat 1,600 calories a day (the typical needs of an adult woman), 8% is 128 calories worth of added sugar daily. One 12-ounce can of soda packs about 150 calories worth.
Excess sugar also ups the chances of developing type 2 diabetes. In one large study that covered over 175 countries, researchers estimate that every 150-calorie increase in sugar consumption per person per day is tied to a 1.1% increase in the proportion of the population that develops diabetes.
Certain cancers have also been tied to an excess sugar intake. The connection may be both direct or indirect, as sugar is connected to weight gain, inflammation, and insulin resistance, all of which boost cancer risk.
Surplus sugar also impacts skin health. A study in 2,300 teens found that those who regularly consumed added sugar had a 30% greater risk of developing acne. And for older adults, too much sugar can accelerate aging by upping the formation of advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, which wreak havoc with the proteins responsible for skin elasticity.
Finally, an excess of the sweet stuff can zap your energy. Using data from over 30 published studies, scientists looked at the impact of sugar on various aspects of mood, including fatigue, anger, alertness, and depression. Researchers concluded that those who ate sugar felt more tired and less alert than those who had not—especially within the first hour after consumption—even when participating in demanding mental and physical activities. They also found no positive effects on any aspect of mood following sugar consumption, meaning it's a fallacy that sugar will perk you up.
Other research shows that surplus sugar intake is linked to depression. A study in over 60,000 women found that those with the highest added sugar intakes were significantly more likely to experience depression.
How to cut back on sugar
One of the best ways to cut back is to eliminate sugary drinks, like soda, sweet tea, lemonade, and the like. When it comes to the obvious sugary foods, like baked goods, ice cream, and other treats, be selective and strategic. I advise my clients to rank indulgences on a scale from 0-5, with 0 being just meh and 5 being a can’t-live-without favorite. If something doesn’t rate at least a 4, you probably won’t regret forgoing it.
Enjoy goodies that are truly special, but make simple tweaks to create balance. For example, if you know you want a cookie after lunch, opt for a veggie-packed salad topped with lean protein instead of a carb-heavy sandwich or wrap. And to scope out concealed sources of sugar, become an avid label reader. Look at not just the grams of sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel but also the ingredient list for terms that end in -ose, like glucose, fructose, dextrose, and maltose, as well as the word syrup.
When the foundation of your diet is fresh, unprocessed whole food, and less of what you eat comes in a package, you’ll automatically slash your added sugar intake. It may just be the most impactful change you can make for your everyday energy and overall health.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees.
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