Americans have had a long-standing love affair with and addiction to sugar. Just about every aisle except the cleaning and toiletries section of the grocery store is loaded with sugary items. Even foods that we don’t think about can be loaded with sugar.
Here are some interesting facts about Americans’ sugar consumption (2):
- 200 years ago, the average American ate 2 pounds of sugar per year.
- In 1970, the average American ate 123 pounds of sugar per year.
- Today, the average American eats 152 pounds of sugar per year.
- The average American eats 42.5 teaspoons of sugar per day and the current recommendations are that a person should not exceed 13.3 teaspoons of sugar per day.
We have all heard it is not “healthy” but what exactly are the effects of sugar on the body?
There are many health risks of eating too much sugar. One study, published in 2014 in JAMA Internal medicine, showed a strong correlation to high sugar intake and the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. In fact, the 15 year study showed that people had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease if 17% to 21% of their calories were from added sugar compared to those who consumed 8% of their calories as added sugar (1). There are several indirect connections that contribute to this increase. In a nutshell, eating a high amount of sugar overloads the liver. Your liver converts these carbohydrates to fat, which can lead to fatty liver disease which contributes to diabetes which then raises your risk of heart disease. In addition, high amounts of sugar intake lead to chronic inflammation as well as high blood pressure, which also contributes to your risk of heart disease (1).
A diet high in sugar can affect the health of your teeth, your joints and even makes you age faster. If you suffer from joint pain, laying off of the sugar will decrease your joint inflammation (3) which in turn will decrease your pain. Excess sugar intake can even affect your sexual health because sugar affects your circulatory system which controls blood flow that is needed for an erection (3). High intake of sugar is also correlated to higher risks for cancer and strokes (4).
In today’s world of COVID-19, a strong immune system has never been more important. Eating a diet high in sugar suppresses your immune system, which in turn makes it more likely you can get sick and negatively affects your body’s ability to fight disease (6).
Have you ever noticed that when you eat something sugary, you get hungry faster? You get the shakes, get sweaty, anxious and are instantly starving? This is because when you eat too much sugar it spikes your insulin levels and then your blood sugar falls rapidly, leading to symptoms of low blood sugar. So, the mistake that people make is to then eat something sugary to bring them out of this feeling, when in fact, they are just putting themselves back on that blood sugar rollercoaster. Eventually, eating too much sugar causes your body to not respond properly to insulin and therefore your pancreas secretes even more insulin, leading to diabetes type 2.
Are there psychological consequences to eating too much sugar?
Did you know that sugar is addictive? Sugar gives your brain a boost in feel-good chemicals called dopamine and opioids. You feel great when you get this release of dopamine and opioids and when you don’t have sugar, your brain will send out that “feed me sugar” signal because it wants another dose of dopamine and opioids (3). High intake of sugar is also related to a greater risk of depression in adults (3). A research study on rats from Connecticut College showed that Oreo cookies activated “more neurons in the pleasure center of the rat’s brains than cocaine does” (5).
What can you do to decrease your intake of sugar?
One of the easiest ways to decrease your intake of sugar is to not drink soda, which is the number one way Americans get too much sugar. Even sodas that are diet sodas can cause insulin spikes and blood sugar drops that make you crave more sugar. You can replace your sodas with healthy options such as a carbonated beverages that are flavored with the oils of a fruit such as LaCroix or Waterloo. Pellegrino, Perrier, infused waters (cucumber mint is my favorite) and iced teas are good replacements as well.
Another way to decrease your sugar intake is to read the nutritional labels. Check the labels for the “other” names for sugar and watch out for anything in the label that ends in an “ose” (glucose, fructose, sucrose, etc). Foods such as soups, ketchup, salad dressings, peanut butter, fruit juices and other processed foods are loaded with sugar. There are many different names that sugar goes by and is hidden in our foods. Here are some of the different names to watch for on nutritional labels (2):
Sugar, Glucose, honey, Sorghum syrup, lactose, fruit juice concentrate, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup, Sorbitol, molasses, Maltose, corn sweetener, Sucrose, brown sugar and syrup.
Watch out for “low fat” and “fat free” products as oftentimes the fat is removed and extra sugar is added to make it taste good. Choose options that are full of healthy fats such as avocados, salmon and nuts. These will help you feel fuller for longer and help you get off the blood sugar rollercoaster.
The more you avoid processed foods, the lower your intake of sugar will be. Focus on whole foods such as hardboiled eggs, nuts, no added sugar jerky, fruits, vegetables, etc. Replace dessert with healthier options such as fresh fruit, Greek yogurt with some cinnamon or berries or a frozen banana that you can mush up with a fork to replace your ice cream.
Focusing on your health has never been more important. 80-90% of the reasons why you go see your medical doctor are related to health issues surrounding lifestyle choices. Decreasing your sugar intake and focusing on a healthy diet is one of the biggest things you have 100% control over in order to improve your health.