When you were a kid, your mom probably warned you about eating too many sweets. Usually, you were warned that you would “ruin your dinner,” or worse, end up in the dentist’s chair with a mouth full of cavities.
As it turns out, mom was right (as usual), but eating too much sugar does a lot more harm than spoiling your appetite or causing tooth decay. In fact, eating too much sugar, particularly added sugar, is linked to a wide range of serious health issues. While overall sugar consumption has gone down in the last five years, health officials note that most Americans eat far more sugar than they should: The average person consumes about 60 pounds of added sugars every year — and all of that sugar is taking a toll.
Natural vs. Added Sugars
Any discussion of sugar needs to begin with a clarification of added sugar vs. naturally occurring sugars. Sugar itself is not the enemy. Many foods, including fresh fruits and grains, contain natural sugar. Our bodies need this type of sugar, as the brains cannot function without glucose, or blood sugar. Therefore, it’s important to consume a certain amount of natural sugar each day.
The problem then is with added sugar. Many processed foods — a staple in American diets — contain added sugar. Because most people do not realize that there is so much sugar in the food they eat every day, and because we’ve become accustomed as a culture to sugar in almost everything we eat, most people consume far more than they should or even realize. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that the average person consumes more than 27 teaspoons of sugar per day, which amounts to about 440 calories, or a quarter of daily caloric intake.
And sugar intake happens gradually. Most people don’t add spoonful after spoonful of sugar to their food, but many drinks or cereals still have a high-sugar level. Not only are there the obvious culprits like soda energy drinks and candy, foods like prepared dressings, barbecue sauce and pasta sauce contain loads of sugar. Even foods that we think are healthy, like dried fruit, yogurt and granola bars are surreptitious sugar bombs. The result? We’re filling our bodies with sugar and causing disease without even realizing it.
The Effect of Sugar
Many people point to sugar as the culprit for our national obesity epidemic. After all, sugar adds extra calories, and all of those unnecessary calories combined with sedentary lifestyles leads to obesity.
Obesity is a factor in other diseases as well, but doctors are beginning to suspect that sugar plays a role in other diseases as well. For example:
Studies have found that people who eat the most sugar have the highest levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides, which are significant factors in heart disease. While cholesterol can be controlled with medication like Lipitor or Zetia, these medications work best in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and a diet that limits sugar, salt and fat.
The human brain produces a chemical called brain-derives neurotropic factor (BDNF) which allows us to learn and retain new information and form memories. Research indicates that eating too much added sugar actually reduces the brain’s ability to produce this chemical, which in turn makes it difficult to remember information or learn anything new, and that low BDNF appears to be a factor in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as depression.
While sugar itself may not cause erectile dysfunction, the artery clogging cholesterol that it creates can contribute to decreased blood flow and difficulty getting and maintaining an erection.
It’s a common misconception that eating too much sugar can lead to diabetes. Too much sugar in and of itself is not going to cause either
Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, which are caused by genetics and/or lifestyle factors. However, too much sugar does lead to weight gain, which is a primary risk factor in Type 2 diabetes.
Given the potential health risks of overindulging in sugar, specifically added sugar, what should you do? The American Heart Association recommends that women should eat no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day, men no more than nine. The easiest way to limit sugar consumption is to maintain a diet of mostly fresh, whole foods and avoiding most processed foods. Learn to read food labels, and identify “hidden” sources of sugar, as not all labels clearly list “sugar” as an ingredient. Since it’s very difficult to avoid all added sugars, if you are going to eat something that will take you over the recommended amount, try to eat foods that are otherwise nutritious, such as yogurt or fortified milk. And of course, be sure to get plenty of exercise to burn up those excess calories.
Excess sugar is a major problem for many people, but being aware of how much of the sweet stuff you’re really eating and the potential effects on your body will help you make better food choices. An occasional indulgence is fine, but on a daily basis, remember your mother’s advice and keep the sweets as a treat.