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Are you getting too much sugar?
June 4, 2010

Written by Darren Renz, Registered and Licensed Dietitian.

We all have heard the advice from Mary Poppins, that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but should we listen?

As we all search for ways to improve our daily life and make healthier choices, I find it important that we understand the role sugars play. Since 1970, Americans have increased their sugar consumption by 20 percent. The American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended we decrease our consumption of added sugars because findings indicate that diets high in added sugars cause heart disease as much as diets high in fats.

A recent study released by The Journal of the American Medical Association validated the recommendations by the AHA. Their study showed that people who consumed more sugar appeared to have lower HDL (also known as good cholesterol) and higher triglyceride levels. Those levels are opposite of what your family doctor looks for when evaluating your cardiovascular health.

The study also found that the average added sugar consumption was over 21 teaspoons per day, which means over 320 extra calories a day. The AHA recommends women limit added sugars to 6 ½ teaspoons (25 grams) per day and men consume no more than 9 teaspoons (37 grams) of added sugars per day.

So now that I have your attention, let us take a closer look at what sugars are and where they come from.

Carbohydrates are the major source of energy in the human diet. Roughly half of dietary carbohydrates are found in the form of complex carbohydrates such as starches, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Those are broken down into sugar in the body. However, unlike simple carbohydrates such as sugar, complex carbohydrates take longer to process, and therefore the sugar is absorbed slower.

The remaining half of dietary carbohydrates is supplied as simple sugars, which can be quickly broken down and digested. Research shows simple sugars increase our fat stores, and lead to poor cardiovascular health and obesity. While the body may use simple and complex carbohydrates similarly, it is important to understand their differences.

Naturally occurring sugars: These are found naturally in foods, along with other important nutrients that are important for our overall health. Fruits contain naturally occurring sugars know as fructose, while milk contains natural sugar know as lactose. Natural sugars are typically found in fresh fruit, milk, and other whole food sources.

Added sugars: These are not typically present in food but added during processing to add or enhance flavor. Added sugars include table sugar, brown sugar, and high fructose corn syrup. Although we hear many stories about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup (HCFS), the true villain or bad guy is all sugars. Natural sweeteners such as honey, molasses, brown rice syrup, and agave nectar are still added sugars. Regardless if it is added to food or beverages such as soft drinks, teas, candy, pies, cakes, cookies, or canned fruits, it is an added sugar or sweetener that can lead to cardiovascular health and obesity.

It is also very important and necessary to understand what the Nutrition Food Label is telling you when it comes to sugar. The FDA guidelines require labeling of total carbohydrates with identification of what part is total fiber, and what portion is sugar. Sugars on a food label are the weight in grams of all sugars: natural and added sugars. It does not specifically tell us whether that source we are choosing to eat is natural sugar or added sugars.

So, it’s late in the afternoon, and you’re in the mood for a snack. You eat three Oreo cookies, and that means you have just consumed about three teaspoons of sugar with little or no nutrients for the use by the body. If you are a women, you now can only consume 3 ½ more teaspoons the rest of the day. If you had chosen a serving of strawberries, you would have consumed some where around 2 teaspoons of natural sugar along with a host of other health benefits.

Here are some tips to help you make your sugar intake as healthy as possible:

Try to select naturally occurring sugars whenever possible: FRUITS AND VEGETABLES.

READ food labels, refer to the ingredient list to evaluate the source of sugars that are reported. Remember the higher up on the list sugar is listed, the more sugar in the item. Look for these indicators of added sugars: corn sweetener, dextrose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, maltose, sucrose.

Reduce or eliminate intake of sweetened beverages. These include soft drinks, sweetened teas, and energy drinks.

Of course I know we all get cravings. But before you reach for that candy bar, think about the nutrient rich naturally sweet option, such as dried fruits.

Even though Mary Poppins told us that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, we may not want to follow that advice. Many of us are consuming too many sugars from added sugar, which is not healthy. A saying I use to help my clients remember the dangers of added sugar is “If it is white it isn’t right!”

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