You’ve probably been hearing a lot about sugar lately. More than usual, that is. It seems like Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s report on 60 Minutes a couple of weeks ago started a wildfire in the media, referring to sugar as “toxic” and blaming it for the nation’s obesity and health crises. Is it true? Is all sugar the same? Should we be avoiding it completely or avoiding certain sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup? These are frequently asked questions we get from our patients and some points that seem to get muddled in the media.
Here are some simple, straight-forward answers:
1. Sugar is not toxic. I really despise the reference to sugar as being “toxic” because “toxic” is a word used to describe poisons and chemicals. Sugar is not a poison, nor is it the sole cause of obesity, diabetes or high cholesterol. Sugar is a safe food to eat. The most frequent cause of diabetes and cardiovascular disease is overeating coupled with lack of activity, which leads to overweight and obesity–risk factors for many health conditions.
2. All sugar, be it high fructose corn syrup, honey, syrup, raw sugar or table sugar, is the same to your body. We could get really technical here, but in the end, sugar is broken down into its smallest parts (glucose, fructose or lactose) and your body doesn’t differentiate based on the original source.
3. It is not necessary to avoid sugar of any kind (even if you have diabetes), but there are some limits. Americans are consuming more than the recommended intake of sugar, but we’re doing better. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition released a report last year concluding that Americans’ sugar intake has been declining in recent years. However, we still continue to suffer health disparities; to me this clearly demonstrates that we do not need to focus on eliminating sugar. Rather we need to take a big picture, whole diet approach and concentrate on limiting total sugar intake.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting intake of added sugars to 5 teaspoons per day for women (20 grams of sugar) and 9 teaspoons per day for men (36 grams of sugar). It can get tricky when reading labels because sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish which sugars are added and which are naturally-occuring. I advise patients to read labels for sugars on packaged foods and to use your best instincts. For example, if a product is topped with sugar, such as a frosted cereal, that’s a clear signal that sugar has been added. Most of the time, try to select options that don’t have added sugars. Keep in mind that the sugar found in fruit and milk is naturally-occuring. Naturally-occuring sugars do not need to be limited.
It is okay to include moderate amounts of sugar in the context of a healthy eating plan, no matter what the source. In fact, allowing yourself the occasional “indulgence” can make it easier to stick with your meal plan. Become informed about products by reading food labels and be sure to include several servings of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, lean meats and healthy fats in your diet daily. Be aware of portion sizes and balance your food intake with regular physical activity as part of a healthy, disease-preventing lifestyle.
If you would like more information or help customizing your individual healthy lifestyle plan, contact a Registered Dietitian at St. Anthony’s.
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Photo credit: Stuart Miles