Where to begin? Added sugar is everywhere, in places you’d expect, like soft drinks and candies, and in some very unexpected places like bacon and that jar of marinara sauce in your pantry. Yes, really – go look.
And, all those calories you’re getting from added sugar are “empty” – that is, they have no nutritional value. Zippo. Nothing there you need.
Why so much added sugar? Because we like it. Or love it. Many of us would probably say we’re addicted to it. And food manufacturers know that. Sugar makes things taste better and by adding it to foods, they know that after that first bite you’ll come back for more (and more). There are other, less sinister reasons sugar is added to food products: it is a bulking agent, a flavor enhancer, and a preservative. But whatever the reason – it’s still lurking in packaged foods and nothing about it is good for your body. And don’t be fooled, the sugar that’s been added to packaged foods isn’t always listed as “sugar.” Here are just a few of the many disguises sugar takes:
Dextrose • Maltose • Glucose • Fructose • Corn sweetener • Honey • Corn syrup • Sucrose • Sorghum syrup • Sorbitol • Brown sugar • Lactose • Molasses • Syrup • Fruit juice concentrate • High-fructose corn syrup • Agave nectar • Maltose • Crystalline fructose • Evaporated cane juice
Just to be clear, the villain here is added sugar, not the natural sugar you get from eating whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. In addition to their natural sugar content, they provide good-for-you nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants. In a healthy diet that includes these whole, unprocessed foods, you are getting as much sugar as you need.
But maybe not as much as you crave, and therein lies the problem. Our tendency to overconsume sugar1 perpetuates our overconsumption of it. The more we eat the more we want. It’s a cycle that can be broken, but because the dangers of sugar are not as obvious as, say, the dangers of smoking, you might need a bit of encouragement to curb your sugar habit. Here are just a handful of reasons to cut way back on sugar:
You don’t need a physics degree to know that the most fattening foods —i.e., all those foods most diets, whatever the genre, tend to eliminate or significantly limit — contain lots of sugar. Sugary soft drinks top the list, but desserts, candies, and processed foods high in carbohydrates all add sugar that you don’t need to your diet. Too much sugar in your system turns to fat, overtaxes your liver, and sets you up for insulin resistance (something we’ll talk about in a future post). I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern here if you’ve been reading our other posts. PROCESSED, manufactured foods are too often significant contributors to poor health.
By attaching itself to proteins in your bloodstream, sugar forms compounds called advanced glycation end products (aptly enough, “AGEs”) that damage collagen and elastin – the very things that keep your skin looking good. That damage, and sugar’s inflammatory properties, accelerate the onset of wrinkles and sagging skin. Probably not what you were hoping for when you downed that bag of M&Ms.
Seems odd, doesn’t it? We’re always hearing about saturated fat and cholesterol, and it’s easy to imagine: thick, viscous stuff = clogged arteries. (In our minds, anyway – it’s a little more complicated than that.) But sugar? It dissolves in water, for Pete’s sake. How can sugar affect your heart and cardiovascular health? Well, most obvious, is the weight gain (see above). Being overweight is hard work for your heart. But less obvious, and harder to envision, is that sugar can increase your triglyceride levels (one of those lipids doctors always want you to lower) and add insulin to your bloodstream. Over time, this will cause your artery walls to tense up (so stressful, that sugar!) and cause the kind of damage to your heart that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Your Liver, Pancreas, and Kidneys
Too much sugar in your bloodstream can make your liver resistant to insulin (and it’s insulin that helps turn sugar into energy). Unchecked blood sugar levels set you up for type II diabetes. Something similar happens with your pancreas: too much sugar and your pancreas can’t keep up, pumps out more insulin and … you know what’s coming … you’re on track for type II diabetes. Diabetes damages your kidneys and can eventually lead to kidney failure.
You were waiting for this one. Your mom and your dentist have been telling you this for ages, and what do you know? They were right! Sugar rots your teeth. The bacteria that naturally exists in your mouth (and forms the plaque you mostly brush away twice a day) teams up with the sugar you eat and releases an acid that causes tooth decay. Can you hear the sound of the dentist’s drill? Better to listen to you mom.
So sugar is a contributing factor in all these things:
- Saggy, wrinkled skin
- Heart damage and disease
- Diabetes and organ damage
- Tooth decay
Anything on that list you want? Didn’t think so. And that’s just a short list.
Fruit can be a delicious and healthy alternative to packaged desserts and candies, and you will probably find if you can go a full week without any added sugar, your cravings for it will start to go away – and that will make your organs, your heart, you, and your mom really happy. (But maybe not your dentist.)
1. On average, Americans consume about 150 pounds of sugar a year, about three pounds a week. The American Heart Association and most nutritionists recommend that only about 10% of our total calories should come from sugar (about 13 teaspoons a day in a 2000 calorie a day diet), but we are averaging more than 42 teaspoons a day. Way too much. (from the Department of Health and Human Services)