Are you eating more sugar than you think? Each day, most of us consume two to three times more sugar than is recommended by the American Heart Association (AMA). It is often hiding in foods where you may not expect it. How is sugar processed in your body, and what does this mean for your health?
Based on multiple scientific studies on human health, researchers are finding that excess sugar consumption can suppress your immune system, elevate your blood pressure, contribute to obesity, increase the risk for heart disease, liver disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer, and can even give you wrinkles.
The AMA, the FDA, and WHO all recommend limiting sugar. While the AMA is the most conservative at 24 grams for women and 36 for men, the FDA and WHO indicate that there are benefits to keeping sugar to less than 5-10% of your daily calories, about 25 – 50 grams.
Yet, most Americans unknowingly eat between 80-110 grams of added sugar a day. There is the obvious location in sodas and candy bars. But the challenge is that sugar is often hiding in places where you might not expect it: ketchup, salad dressing, sauces, and yogurt.
For instance, a quick bowl of breakfast cereal can start your day off with a sugar high. Bran cereal with raisins has about 19 grams of sugar and some yogurts have as much as 17 grams of added sugar. Compare this with a peanut chocolate candy bar that has about 20 grams. Both start off your day dangerously close to your recommended daily amount! Sugar is addictive, so when you start your day with too much sugar, your body – and your brain – wants more.
The sugar high: dopamine
Sugar has a direct relationship to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When you eat sugar, it causes dopamine to be released and actually activates your brain’s “reward system.” This is known as a sugar high or buzz. But the cumulative effects of too much sugar are dangerous to your health. Take a look at this video produced by Ted-Ed:
Eating excess sugar isn’t doing your body any favors
As sugar rises in the blood, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin is responsible for glucose uptake into the cells, where it is used for energy. It also signals the liver and muscles to convert the glucose into glycogen for storage.
When your body produces too much insulin in response to high sugar and carbohydrates in the blood, your blood pressure increases. This is because high insulin causes magnesium stores to decrease. If magnesium levels are too low, the blood vessels will not be able to fully relax thereby causing restriction of the blood vessels and increased blood pressure.
Additionally, excess sugar, especially fructose, increases uric acid levels, which inhibit nitric oxide in the blood vessels. Since nitric oxide helps blood vessels maintain their elasticity, decrease nitric oxide increases blood pressure.
What is the difference between glucose and fructose?
Humans need glucose for energy. But too much glucose is stored in your liver and muscles and turned into fat.
The cells in the body do not use fructose for energy, so all of the fructose you eat is metabolized in the liver. Fructose is not used as an energy source. Instead, in the liver, fructose is turned into free fatty acids, very low-density lipoproteins and triglycerides, which are then stored as body fat.
Too much contributes to obesity, elevated blood pressure, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
What about the natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables?
You are not going to become obese by eating fruits and vegetables. While the body handles sugars naturally present in fruits and vegetables in a similar way to added sugars, the benefits of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber make eating fruits and veggies worthwhile for your diet.
In addition, the fiber in the fruit and vegetables fills you up and slows down the rate at which your body digests the sugar, thus decreasing the glycemic impact. On average, you should have between 5 and 9 servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
To learn the sugar content in different fruits, the USDA provides a searchable nutrient database.
There are a lot of different types of sugar. What makes them different?
Sugar comes from many sources. The most common is from sugarcane, sugar beets, and corn. Many people think sugars such as honey, agave, or brown sugar are better for you because they are “natural.” This is not true. Sugar is sugar—no matter where it comes from.
All sugar, except agave, have roughly the same ratio of fructose and glucose. Your body processes glucose and fructose the same way, no matter the source.
What about calorie count?
Each type of sugar, whether it is sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, provides the same number of calories. One gram of sugar has 4 calories, which means that 1 teaspoon is roughly 20 calories and 1 tablespoon provides about 60 calories.
What are the sugar alternatives?
You do have choices to satisfy your sweet tooth. There are two kinds of alternative sweeteners: natural, such as Stevia, and artificial, such as Splenda, Equal and Sweet’N Low. Stevia is made directly from the stevia leaf while the others are created in a lab, hence the difference between a natural sweetener and an artificial sweetener. To read more about the differences of these sweeteners, check out our post What is an Artificial Sweetener?
The FDA has now included ‘added sugars’ in the new labeling process. These are sugars that are added during food processing or packing. A study led by researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and the University of Liverpool estimated that the new FDA labeling could prevent or postpone nearly 1 million cases of cardiometabolic disease, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes over a 20 year period. For more on labeling, check out our D2D post on nutrition facts.
The Bottom Line:
Stop overeating sugar!! Whether you are consuming honey, agave, high fructose corn syrup, or table sugar, it all has the same effect on your body. Consider eliminating added sugars as a secret to managing your health.