Sugar – Is It Hurting Your Healthy Lifestyle?

Matt Kiszka

Sometimes it seems like sugar is in everything we eat. The obvious culprits for high-sugar content foods are candy, cakes, soft drinks, and desserts, to name a few. But did you know that fruit juices can contain as much (if not more) sugar as a can of Coke? Or that many breads also have a high sugar content (roughly 1.5g per slice)? Or that one Clif Bar contains around 25g of sugar, which is the recommended daily allowance of added sugars for a woman?

A 2016 research study published in JAMA Internal Medicine identified a decades-long campaign of sugar industry-funded research to play down the negative effects of sugar and to demonize fats in the debate on the dietary causes of cardiovascular disease. This could be part of the reason sugar is so prolific in processed foods — we’ve been misinformed on how bad it can be for us.

Related Article: 5 Easy, Heart-Healthy Breakfast Ideas

sugar

When we consume sugar (glucose), the pancreas releases insulin, which tells our cells to absorb the glucose. This provides fuel for our body, and results in an increase in energy. Excess sugar is converted by the liver to glycogen, which is then stored in muscles and other tissue. However, once adequate energy for the body has been stored, the remaining glucose is converted to fat by the liver. Over time this can lead to obesity or diabetes, among many other health issues.

According to another study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine, consuming too much sugar, even if you lead a healthy lifestyle, can contribute to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Participants in the 15-year study were found to be twice as likely to die from heart disease if they received 25% or more of their daily calories as added sugar, compared with those whose diets were made of up less than 10% added sugar. And this was regardless of age, sex, physical activity level, or body-mass index. Researchers concluded that most US adults consume more added sugar than is recommended for a healthy diet, and observed a significant relationship between added sugar consumption and increased risk for cardiovascular disease mortality. 

When it comes to added sugar, all types impact the body in the same way. Whether it’s anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, confectioner’s powdered sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, or white granulated sugar — to name just a few — sugar is sugar.  Your body metabolizes it just the same, no matter where it is sourced from or how it is processed. One of the few exceptions is when you are consuming the natural sugars from a piece of fruit (fructose) or milk (lactose), which also provide the body with dietary fiber, slowing down and reducing the absorption of the sugar. These sources of sugar are not considered as harmful as processed, added sugar.

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In March 2015, the World Health Organization published new guidelines recommending that adults and children reduce their consumption of added sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake, with a further reduction to below 5% being associated with additional health benefits. The American Heart Association also recommends men consume no more than 36g (9 teaspoons, or ~150 calories) of added sugar per day, and that women consume no more than 24g (6 teaspoons, or ~100 calories) per day. It should be noted that neither organization considers the naturally occurring sugars of fruit or milk to be a danger to one’s health, however.

To put these amounts in context:

Snickers bar – 27g of sugar

Hershey’s chocolate bar – 24g of sugar

Can of Coca-Cola – 40g of sugar

8oz cup of fruited yoghurt – 43g of sugar

12oz glass of orange juice – 33g of sugar

Bottle of red wine – 5g of sugar

Banana – 14g of sugar

Apple – 19g of sugar

Orange – 12g of sugar

If you want to convert these amounts into calories, you have to take the grams of sugar and multiple it by 4. So, 20g of sugar contains 80 calories.

I think that further research would be useful in helping us understand the interplay between natural sugars and added sugars, and whether or not a diet high in fructose or lactose really is safe. Researchers don’t seem to be focusing on the total sugar content of a diet, but rather the total added sugar, and how this can impact your health. While natural sugars are metabolized more slowly by the body when a piece of fruit is being consumed, surely there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to throwing tens of grams of processed, added sugars on top of them.

Either way, if you have a sweet tooth or haven’t previously considered the amount of added sugar you consume each day, you could gain health benefits from becoming more aware of your dietary habits and cutting back on sugar. If you supplement your workout regime with protein shakes, you might also want to check the nutritional information label to see how many grams of sugar are in each shake. Some of them go down more easily for a reason. And energy drinks are often laden with added sugars — which is why they give you a boost of energy. For those sugary cravings you might have, fruit is a great alternative to chocolate, but, let’s be honest, it isn’t always quite as enjoyable. Treat yourself once in a while with a nice piece of double chocolate cake, but don’t have it nightly for dessert. And if you love fruit, it sounds like you can indulge to your heart’s content. At least until that further research is conducted.

Related Article: Gene-base Nutrition: Can It Benefit You?

References:

Yang, Q., Zhang, Z., Gregg, E.W., et al. (2014). Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 174(4):516-524.

Kearns, C.E., Schmidt, L.A., & Glantz, S.A. (2016).  Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research. A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA Intern Med. 176(11):1680-1685.

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