Sugar Shock—Sweets and Your Health

Here are two not-so-sweet facts to contemplate:

  1. We all know we should “eat less sugar.” Yet sugar and its ubiquitous co-sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, are in so many of the foods crowding our supermarket shelves.
  2. Most people could not tell you how much sugar they eat each day, or what this sugar intake might be doing to their health.

For some time now, nutritional scientists have known that excessive sugar consumption undermines our health. Just how sugar does this depends on the type of sugar we eat, how much we eat, genetic predispositions to certain conditions, and other factors.

A recent TIME article, “How Sweet Can Become Toxic,” highlighted some new research on sugar conducted at the University of Utah and published in Nature Communications. In the study, mice ate a diet approximately equal to our average diet (figuring on about 3 sodas a day) of 25% sugar. 25% sugar is a high amount, but many people might be surprised that their diet falls into this category. After 58 weeks, the sugar-inundated mice had a twice as high mortality rate as the mice who had not been fed this extra sugar. The 25% sugar diet wreaked havoc on their life span.

What’s more, the extra sugar significantly affected the male mice, dropping their reproductive rates. Scientists reported that the male mice had a harder time competing in their environment. We know that increased sugar/high fructose corn syrup consumption contributes to obesity, fatty liver conditions, insulin resistance, diabetes risk, and heart health problems, but this report also points to hormonal problems caused by sugar.

The long and short of the new research on sugar is that we are still uncovering what this major part of the Standard American Diet (SAD) does to our overall health and longevity. We have come to understand that cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption will damage our health and shorten our lives, but could sugar be similarly toxic?

Knowledge is Sweet
A big step in managing your and your family’s health is to know how much sugar you’re eating every day. That’s easy, right? Just check the “sugars” line on the back of your food package…right? Unfortunately, no. Other carbohydrates in our foods are processed as sugars in the body, making the “sugars” line only part of the equation.

Here is the new, fool-proof equation you can use to quickly uncover just how much sugar your foods contain:

Total Carbs minus Total Fiber… divided by 5 = Number of teaspoons of sugar

Aim to keep your sugar intake about 10-15 teaspoons a day (do the math and many of us are consuming closer to 30 teaspoons!) by increasing the amount of lean protein, nuts, vegetables, fiber-rich grains/seeds such as flax and chia you eat. And the easiest way to cut down on sugars? Cut way down on processed foods, or the number of foods you buy that come in a box, can, or package.

Source: “How Sweet Can Become Toxic,” TIME Health & Family, Aug 2013.

High-fructose Corn Syrup Linked to Cancer Cell Growth

Americans love sugar. According to the USDA, each of us consumes more than 150 pounds of added sugar every year (or about 50 teaspoons daily), making the United States the largest consumer of sweeteners worldwide.

So where does most of this sugary goodness come from? Mainly from heavily processed snack foods, baked goods and soft drinks all loaded with high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS is a highly refined sweetener made from corn starch, and one that is widely used by food manufacturers because it is inexpensive to produce and transport.

The problem, experts say, comes with the health risks associated with HFCS and how it works in the body. Put simply, it affects healthy blood sugar levels and insulin regulation, which helps to explain why a diet high in HFCS has been linked to increased risk of obesity and obesity-related disease. And now scientists have found another reason to caution Americans against the common sweetener.

A recent study found that pancreatic cancer cells use fructose to multiply in the body, which supports previous studies that have linked a high-HFCS diet with higher rates of pancreatic cancer. It has to do with how fructose and glucose—the two main components of HFCS—are metabolized in the body, and scientists found that cancer cells had an easier time metabolizing fructose in order to thrive.

More research is planned to help scientists better understand the relationship between sugar metabolism and increased cancer risk, but experts hope that studies like this one will increase awareness about the dangers of eating too much sugar.