A few years after really committing to my personal fitness, I watched a documentary called “That Sugar Film“. It’s an Australian movie that sheds an unpleasantly bright light on the sugar industry, and just how bad for you sugar is. Most of us know that sugar is not a healthy thing to consume in large quantities, and so many of us try to avoid it to a greater or lesser degree. We allow it into our lives in small quantities, or on special occasions, believing that if we eat generally healthy diets, then we’re probably OK. The uncomfortable truth is that our health and our waistbands are proving that the vast majority of us are living in denial. The saddest part is that its a denial that many of us are not even aware of.
Today, we’ll look at the uncomfortable (and unfortunate!) truths about sugar; why it’s so bad for us, how much we’re all really eating, why we love it so much, and a little bit of science to make sense of it all. The goal here is not necessarily to convince you to ditch sugar from your life forever (although that’s probably not a bad idea). The goal is to educate you about it so that you can make better decisions about how and when you decide to include it in your life.
Just The Facts Ma’am
First let’s start with a few uncomfortable truths.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance. For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons.
Not too bad right? Well, consider that added sugars doesn’t just refer to the sugar you may be putting in your coffee or tea, but to any sugar that’s added to the foods that you eat – even by the manufacturer. You might think that’s easy to spot, things like doughnuts, sodas and candy are certainly standouts, but this also refers to things like sweetened yogurts, flavored oatmeal’s, pasta sauces and MANY processed foods. The horrible truth is that the average American consumes the equivalent of a 3 pound bag of sugar each week. One pound of granulated sugar converted to teaspoons equals to 108.86 teaspoons. so three pounds a week is equal to 326.6 teaspoons a week or 46.7 teaspoons a day – 5 to 8 times the recommended daily amount – give or take. That means you. Even if you’re trying to eat healthy.
Let’s look at a quick tool to help you determine how many teaspoons of sugar you’re consuming: Approximately every 4g of sugar is the equivalent of 1 tsp of sugar – straight out of the bag. Using this metric, it’s not too difficult to measure your own sugar consumption – if you read the labels on everything you eat. Try it and see just how much you’re putting in your body.
I’m a big fan of taking responsibility for your actions, but this is one time when I will say that it’s not entirely your fault. Decades ago, it was determined that a low fat diet led to a healthier lifestyle. This caused a lot of companies making processed foods (packaged foods that are “ready to eat”) to remove a lot of the fats that their foods may have naturally contained. While this helped their foods to meet the “low fat” metric, it made the food – well, it made it weird. It didn’t taste as good, the mouth feel was off, things didn’t brown the way that consumers were used to and there weren’t enough calories in the food to provide the energy that consumers needed. It seemed like adding sugar was an ideal solution. It wasn’t the bogeyman that fat was, it tasted great, it fixed the mouth feel issue, it browned nicely and helped to increase the needed calories as well. One problem solved, a new one created.
At this point in time, if you remove all of the items in a grocery store that contain sugar, only 20% of the items would remain. So as I said, it’s not entirely your fault that you’re consuming so much sugar.
Sugar is hidden in many places, including most processed/prepared foods (the center part of most grocery stores). But it is especially prevalent in drinks of all types, some common examples based on google-able nutrition labels:
Vitamin Water – 1 Bottle: 8 tsp (32 g)
Arizona Green Tea (With Ginseng & Honey) – 1 Bottle: 10.5 tsp (42.5g)
Coca-Cola – 1 – 12oz can: 9.75 tsp (39g)
Tropicana Orange Juice: 1 – 10oz serving: 7 tsp (28g)
Mountain Dew: 1 – 355ml can: 11.5 tsp (46g)
Gatorade Fierce – grape: 1 bottle – 591ml: 8.5tsp (34g)
V-8 Juice: 1 8oz. can: 2.5 tsp (10g)
Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino: tall size: 11.25tsp (45g)
Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino: venti size: 21tsp (84g)
As you can see, there are many variations here, but the thing to watch when determining accurate amounts, is the serving size. Many labels may list a low quantity of calories or sugar, but the serving size may be 1/3 of the bottle. V-8 for example above is the lowest in sugar, but also the smallest serving size (It’s still by far the “healthiest” choice out of the above options!) That’s why I wanted to include the two Starbucks examples, serving size matters – a lot! Also, whether your male or female, one can of Coke fills or exceeds your daily RDA of sugar.
Another quick point, and then I’ll quit drilling home that you’re likely eating a lot more sugar than you’re aware of. Consider the below nutrition information (click on it to blow it up if you need to).
I’m comparing the nutrition information of oatmeal – a pretty common “healthy” breakfast choice that a lot of people make to a Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut. Their sugar content is identical. Granted, there are other nutrition considerations here that might make the oatmeal a better choice, but as it relates to your net sugar consumption, the choices are identical, but the perception of the two foods is vastly different as it relates to being “good for you.”
What happens inside the body when you consume sugar?
Your liver is the organ that processes sugar. When you consume a large amount, which is pretty easy to do when drinking a sports drink for example (or eating certain oatmeal apparently), several things happen – hang on, because we’re about to get science-y here!
First, let’s look at sugar, there are 4 different types of of sugars:
- Glucose – Your body uses this for fuel – it comes from bread, pasta, veggies and grains
- Lactose – which is found in cheeses, milk and yogurt
- Sucrose – This is what we refer to as refined or table sugar. It’s made up of two different sugars – 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
- Fructose – This type of sugar was very very rare in the past – it’s only naturally found in fruits, some veggies and honey, but now, because its a part of table sugar, its everywhere. It’s the thing that makes foods taste sweet.
Table sugar – or refined sugar – is made up of two of these sugars, the body friendly glucose, and the not so body friendly fructose. When table sugar is consumed, it splits into its two component parts, and these travel to the liver for processing. The glucose, being more common in nature, is handled efficiently by your liver. It’s either immediately used for energy, or stored for later. The fructose however, because it’s so rare in nature, and therefore historically a rare element for our bodies to process is a problem. The only organ that can deal with fructose is the liver, so unlike glucose which gets passed on to the bloodstream to be used by the body, the liver holds on to fructose, planning to convert it into glucose if/when it’s needed. However, if we already have high amounts of glucose in our body (remember, half of refined sugar IS glucose, so there probably is a high quantity of it in your body) then the liver converts fructose into fat – some of which will stay in the liver. Which can contribute to insulin resistance and diabetes. Additionally, this fat from the liver can be sent out into the bloodstream as fat, cholesterol and triglycerides, which can lead to weight gain, blocked arteries and heart disease. Too much of this can also lead to fatty liver disease.
While all this is going on, the glucose in our bloodstream from sugar and other carbohydrate sources (bread, pasta, veggies and fruits) signals the brain to increase the amount of insulin in our systems. Insulin signals our cells to open up and accept the glucose to use it for energy, effectively burning it for fuel and removing it from our systems. Our bodies prefer simplicity, and glucose is the simplest fuel for our cells to burn for energy. Because of this, insulin also signals to the body that our excess fat cells are not needed as fuel right now because our body has an abundance of glucose to fuel it. This causes our body to simply hold onto and / or accumulate more fat in case it needs it for energy later – including the fat the liver just converted the excess fructose into.
So, to sum it up, when we eat a lot of sugar, we maintain a high level of glucose which turns off our ability to burn fat (since it’s not needed for energy), while simultaneously increasing the quantity of fat our bodies produce, in order to handle the fructose that it can’t do anything else with. In a society with a massive amount of sugar consumption, it’s a vicious circle leading to obesity and serious health issues. Kind of like what we’re seeing in the world today.
Still confused? Maybe the below clip from “That Sugar Film” will help make sense of it:
Still fuzzy on how much sugar you might be consuming? Here’s another example. A typical breakfast for many of us, or maybe one we might feed to our kids to give them a healthy start to the day:
Special K – Vanilla Almond 1.5 cups (serving size: 3/4 cup): 16g Sugar
2% Milk 1/2 cup: 5g Sugar
Apple Juice 8oz: 20g Sugar
Total: 41g Sugar or 10.1 Teaspoons of sugar
What’s that look like? I was curious, so I spooned some into a measuring cup, you could instead just eat (or let your kids eat) the contents of the measuring cup above – that’s the equivalent amount of sugar – nearly a half a cup.
Why do we love sugar so much if it’s so bad for us?
Back when we had to forage for food, we were especially attuned to sweet foods because we needed the calories provided by natural sugars. These sweet foods were not very common, or had with them other factors that would limit our intake of sugar naturally, either due to scarcity or the inability to eat a lot of it – things like fiber in fruit for example make you feel full.
This is one of the things that makes fruit juices so deceptively bad for us. By juicing the fruit, we remove the fiber that would naturally limit our ability to consume such high volumes of sugar. As such, most juices have an incredibly high sugar content (see our apple juice example above), but most people mistakenly consider them a healthy option because they’re associated with fruits and the vitamins that fruit can provide when eaten whole.
Because our bodies needed these rare sweet treats for added calories and extra energy, our brains rewarded us with things like endogenous opioids and dopamine for consuming them. That works out great when these foods are rare, but because sugar is so common now, the rewards our brains provide us lead to an addiction to something that is now VERY easy to find.
So why should you care?
OK, so we’ve established that you’re probably eating a lot more sugar than you realized you were, and we’ve covered how your body deals with it once you’ve consumed it. But what does all this sugar in your body do to you?
For starters, sugar can cause mood swings. Our bodies run on glucose. It fuels our cells and our brains. As we’ve discussed when looking at macronutrients, there are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate, which means it’s quickly processed by the body. This leads to spiking levels of high and low blood glucose levels, which are felt as an increase or decrease in energy. This spiking of energy often coincides with feelings of happiness or tiredness/grouchiness – depending on the blood glucose level. High glucose causes feelings of happiness, due to the rewards of dopamine and endogenous opioids your brain provides you for consuming something it thinks is rare and essential, and low blood glucose can make you feel tired and or grouchy.
Most of us have experienced the mid-day slump that occurs after a big lunch. Pay attention to the foods that you eat on days when you notice this. Chances are that if you’ve consumed simple carbohydrates, or foods containing refined sugars (remember, sugar is hidden in MANY things) you’re going to feel the slump more.
When the slump hits, your body releases stress hormones like adrenaline signaling the brain to return to a higher blood glucose level. As a result, often when the slump hits, you’ll find that you crave something sweet.
These slumps in energy can also make it harder to find our motivation to workout. Which can lead to a host of other issues, but we’ve covered some of those already in The Psychology Behind Exercise – The Positive Benefits of Eating Right and Starting a Fitness Program.
According to our friends at Healthline, Some additional issues that can occur from eating a lot of fructose or added sugars include:
- The impairment of the composition of your blood lipids. Fructose may raise the levels of VLDL cholesterol, leading to fat accumulation around the organs and potentially heart disease (1, 2).
- Increase blood levels of uric acid, leading to gout and high blood pressure (3).
- Cause deposition of fat in the liver, potentially leading to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (4, 5).
- Cause insulin resistance, which can lead to obesity and type II diabetes (6).
- Fructose doesn’t suppress appetite as much as glucose does. As a result, it might promote overeating (7).
- Excess fructose consumption may cause leptin resistance, disturbing body fat regulation and contributing to obesity (8, 9).
Note: that not all of this has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in controlled studies. However, the evidence is still there, and more studies will paint a clearer picture in the coming years and decades.
Seems like enough reasons for me to care.
Be aware that companies don’t always call “Sugar” Sugar. They have some creative names for Sugar that ALL have an equal effect on your health. Be on the lookout for names like:
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Turbinado (or turbinado sugar)
- Sugar In The Raw
- Fruit Juice Concentrate
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Natural Sugar
- Cane Juice Crystals
- Organic Coconut Palm Sugar
- Rice Syrup
- Brown Sugar
- White Sugar
So what can you do about it?
- Stick to eating whole foods, shop around the outside edges of your grocery store to avoid processed foods (in most grocery store layouts).
- If you can’t (or don’t want to) avoid processed foods, start reading labels and try to buy options with the least amount of sugars. Replace high sugar staples (like pasta sauces) with their lowest sugar cousins – comparison shop based on sugar vs. price.
- Avoid fruit juices, sports drinks and sugary sodas. Replace them with zero added sugar flavored waters or just good old fashioned plain water. Want more flavor? Consider unsweetened teas, or add some lime or mint to your water.
- Don’t fall for a food claiming that it’s “healthy” or “low fat” on the container. Again, always read the label, and see for yourself how much sugar is in a single serving. Then be realistic with yourself and whether you really only eat a single serving at a time. hint: if you’re like me, you probably don’t!
- Try other spices as sugar replacements – like cinnamon (not cinnamon and sugar!) or maybe powdered ginger.
- Consider honey as a sugar replacement. It is slightly lower in glucose and fructose than table sugar, and a lot sweeter, so you may use less of it. However, it is still comprised of the same two sugars as refined / table sugar, so use it sparingly.
- Break the addiction. Consider going on a sugar free diet until the cravings stop (a few weeks or a month) and then re-add sugar into your diet consciously, and limit where you allow it back into your life.
There are a lot of mixed messages and – in my opinion – bad information on the internet trying to make sugar seem like it’s not that bad for you. For me, the science of how your body processes it, it’s scarcity in nature (which to me signals that it’s not something we’re well equipped to process) and the science to date are enough of a deterrent that I try to limit the amount of sugar I consume.
With that said, I’m not completely on the zero sugar train. I recognize that our bodies possess the ability to handle even the nasty fructose that creeps into our lives. So I approach it in moderation, and now that I’m a little better educated, I feel I can live up to a moderate goal. I was disturbed to learn that what I used to think was moderation, wasn’t as moderate as I thought. I was even more disturbed to learn that it wasn’t entirely my fault due to the hidden sugars in pretty much everything we eat. My advice to you is to research this even more on your own and see what makes sense to you. It can’t hurt to err on the side of caution however. Please, share what you learn in the comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts and talk more about this!
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1. Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans
2. Fructose overconsumption causes dyslipidemia and ectopic lipid deposition in healthy subjects with and without a family history of type 2 diabetes.
3. A causal role for uric acid in fructose-induced metabolic syndrome
4. Fructose consumption as a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
5. Fructose and NAFLD: The Multifaceted Aspects of Fructose Metabolism
6. Fructose, but not glucose, impairs insulin signaling in the three major insulin-sensitive tissues
7. Effects of fructose vs glucose on regional cerebral blood flow in brain regions involved with appetite and reward pathways
8. Fructose-induced leptin resistance exacerbates weight gain in response to subsequent high-fat feeding
9. Prevention and reversal of diet-induced leptin resistance with a sugar-free diet despite high fat content