Sugar is health issue that doesn’t get enough attention
By Sandy Sarni
We all know that smoking is bad for us and exercise is good. We recognize that certain lifestyle choices can help prevent the onset of chronic illnesses.
One health-related issue that doesn’t get much attention – but should – is sugar.
Excess sugar consumption is linked to obesity, which has been proven to put people at risk of developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
Another sugar-related risk is metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and excess abdominal fat), a growing epidemic that doubles the risk of heart disease and increases diabetes risk by five times.
What sugar does
Eating something sweet or drinking a sweet beverage can provide an energy boost – even a high – at first, but then there’s the crash. We get tired and cranky, and then we crave more sugar. For many people, this cycle can be difficult to control. For others it’s impossible.
With donuts and trays of cookies at work, vending machines full of sodas and sugary treats, and cakes at every party, we can find ourselves riding this roller coaster throughout the workweek.
What causes this cycle? When we drink or eat something that is high in sugar, the pancreas produces insulin. Insulin causes blood sugar to spike, but then it drops again when cells are overloaded. At this point we lose energy, and appetite is triggered. During this process, the body also makes a decision about whether to store sugar as an immediate energy source or as fat. The more sedentary a person is, the more likely the latter will occur, which is why it’s also important to stay active.
Sugar also directly affects the brain. Dr. David Kessler, a noted researcher and former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says the sugar-induced release of dopamine – a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure – can make it difficult to control eating. Kessler says that once the brain is wired to respond to certain foods, such as sugar, it triggers cravings when we see or smell something we’ve associated with a certain food. Our brain wants to repeat the feeling of pleasure afforded by the release of dopamine, so we seek out more sugar.
What we’re consuming
Americans consume more sugar than is recommended, and in many cases more than we realize. The FDA reports that added sugars account for 16 percent of our total daily caloric intake from foods and beverages. The country’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that we limit added sugars to no more than 10 percent of total daily calories – or 200 calories (12 teaspoons) in a 2,000-calorie day.
The American Heart Association, meanwhile, recommends that we limit consumption of added sugars to “no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance,” which translates to no more than 100 calories per day (six teaspoons) for women and 150 calories (nine teaspoons) for men.
Those who drink sugar-sweetened sodas could be getting more than their daily recommended sugar allowance in just one 20-ounce bottle, which typically contains 15 to 18 teaspoons of sugar.
Cake, cookies and candy are clear culprits, but dietary sugar also comes from sources like low-fat fruit yogurt, bread, and ketchup and condiments. Added sugars include white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey and chemically engineered sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup.
The good news is that eating fruit, with the naturally occurring fruit sugar, fructose, is still good for you and shouldn’t be limited. Dr. Robert Lustig, a nutrition expert who famously labeled sugar as “toxic” and “addictive,” recommends eating fruit “because it comes with its inherent fiber, and fiber mitigates the negative effects (of sugar).” In addition, fruit is also an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Simple carbohydrates cause a rapid increase in blood sugar, which affects energy level and focus. In general, it’s better to choose complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains), lean protein, vegetables and fruits for meals and snacks.
In the workplace, it’s a good idea to rethink what is served at meetings: switch from soda to water and seltzer; forgo the pastry platter in favor of bowls of nuts and fresh fruit; and look for healthier boxed-lunch options that don’t include both chips and a cookie. Coordinate salad bar days, where each employee volunteers to bring in one salad ingredient for the whole group, and consider changing vending machine options to include more nutritious choices. Post fliers on office bulletin boards highlighting sources of sugar and tips for cutting back.
In schools, encourage healthier snacks to share in teacher rooms. Superintendents and principals can suggest to parents that there are other ways to show appreciation to staff besides baked goods.
MIIA’s Wellness staff often works with member communities to provide free nutrition programs led by a registered dietitian – such as cooking demonstrations and combination nutrition-fitness programs – to help encourage healthy lifestyle choices, which in turn can have a positive affect on employee health care and related costs.
Free nutrition tip sheets are available at emiia.org; click on Well Aware then Print and Electronic Resources (in left menu).
Sandy Sarni is registered dietitian and nutritionist with MIIA.