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I consider myself a pretty healthy eater. I chow down on a variety of fruits and veggies, lean protein and whole grains, and I do my best to keep my sweet tooth in check. So I never really worried about how much sugar I was getting -- that is, until I recently heard one doctor say that high doses of sugar were poison and another that he was eliminating the refined sweetener from his diet. Uh-oh. Was the sugar I sprinkled on my oatmeal and stirred into my coffee -- and okay, the occasional cookie or three -- hurting my health?
If I'm eating too much of the sweet stuff, I may have reason to be concerned, doctors say. Sugar is made up of roughly equal parts glucose and fructose. When we consume it, the pancreas releases insulin, which helps our cells use glucose as fuel. However, if we eat more sugar than our bodies can process, insulin instructs our system to store the excess as fat, and we gain weight. The more you weigh, the greater your risk for such health conditions as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Here's where things get a little sticky. Some docs -- particularly Robert Lustig, MD, a professor of pediatrics and endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco -- think that the problem with sugar goes beyond that. Lustig believes that the fructose in sugar is especially dangerous, because we can't digest it properly. That means fructose is metabolized mainly by the liver, which works hard to try to break it down. The strain can result in type 2 diabetes as well as high blood pressure, liver problems and cardiovascular disease, Lustig says.
Plenty of other experts think Lustig is exaggerating the dangers of fructose. "As long as we don't eat it in excess, our bodies don't have trouble breaking down fructose," says David Katz, MD, the director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. But therein lies the real concern, he adds: Sugar itself is not bad, but all of us are eating way more than we should be these days. "That is what leads to obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health problems," Dr. Katz explains.
The average American now consumes more than 100 pounds of sugar a year, yet most of us have no clue we're eating that much. Most of the sugar in our diets comes not from the table sugar we sprinkle into our tea or mix into muffin batter but from sweeteners added to all sorts of packaged foods, even healthy ones like peanut butter and pasta sauce. Why do manufacturers put sugar in so many things that don't need it? The answer is simple: Most people think a product with added sugar tastes better than it does without it. But the more sweetly delicious food gets, the more nutritional value it loses. Many processed foods have few vitamins and minerals and don't do much to satisfy hunger. Dr. Katz says, "They provide more of what we get too much of" -- hello, sugar -- "and less of what we get too little of," like antioxidants.
Sweeteners are now tucked into a vast array of foods, including salad dressing, bread, mustard and crackers. Some of the healthy snacks fit women eat regularly, like fruit-flavored yogurt, are loaded with sugar, says Alyssa Chicci, RD, a dietitian in Phoenix. "A six-ounce container often contains anywhere from 22 to 31 grams of sugar per serving," she points out.
Ironically, the sugar in foods only intensifies our craving for the sweet stuff. "The more sugar people get, the more they need in order to feel satisfied," Dr. Katz explains.
So how much sugar should we be eating? Dr. Katz and Chicci say that no more than 8 to 10 percent of your daily calories should come from added sugar. That's roughly 140 to 180 calories if you consume 1,800 a day. You're probably getting almost twice that now. Here's how to cut back.
Eat more whole foods. The less processed food in your diet, the less added sugar you'll get. When you crave something crunchy, reach for carrots or bell pepper slices instead of crackers. Skip the energy bar and have a banana.
Learn to spot the hidden sweet stuff. "Today there are often several sweeteners in foods, so you can easily get bamboozled when you look at a label," says Michael Goran, PhD, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. Sugar is rarely listed as an ingredient. Instead it will show up as dextrose, sucrose, maltose, honey, molasses, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate and agave nectar. "When you add them up, sweeteners can total more than any other ingredient in a food," Chicci says. Scan labels carefully, and when choosing foods like juice, yogurt, dried fruit, soy milk and peanut butter, opt for those that have no added sugar.
Pay attention to rank. Manufacturers have to list ingredients by weight; the more of a substance that's in a product, the closer it is to the top of the list. "When the first ingredient is high-fructose corn syrup, for example, you know it contains more of that than anything else," Chicci explains.
Beware of "lightly sweetened" or "low sugar" products. This advice might sound counterintuitive, but "there are no FDA regulations governing the use of those phrases, and their meaning is ambiguous," Chicci says. The product could contain almost as much sugar as the original version does. Instead, look for labels that say a product is "sugar-free" or has "no added sugars."
Don't go all artificial. It seems sensible to use an artificial sweetener in place of sugar. But a new study in the journal Appetite found that using these sweeteners could result in weight gain. Experts believe that they make you hungry because they give you the sweet taste but not the calories, leaving you unsatisfied. Limit your consumption of artificial sweeteners the same way you limit your consumption of sugar.
Sip smarter. Sweetened soda, bottled tea and fancy coffee drinks are basically liquid candy, according to Chicci. Opt for unsweetened versions, or drink water with lemon or lime squeezed into it for flavor.
Train your tongue. Because your taste buds have fallen in love with the taste of sugary foods, you'll need to let them get used to unsweetened stuff. Try a food at least 10 times, suggests Jessica Crandall, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Or eat something unsweetened, like plain yogurt, mixed with the sweetened kind for a week or two to ease into the lower-sugar lifestyle.
Don't skip meals. "Eating regularly will prevent your blood sugar from dropping too low, which can make you crave sugar," Chicci says.
Feast on fruity desserts. Fruit is naturally sweet, has a lot of filling fiber and few calories, and is packed with nutrients. Try strawberries with plain yogurt, fruit salad garnished with mint, or grilled peaches (cut peaches in half, remove pits, brush with canola oil and grill about two to three minutes a side; serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt).
It's the ingredient everyone loves to hate. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is used in soda and a wide variety of processed foods because it's cheaper than sugar, has been blamed for playing a major role in the obesity epidemic in the United States. But the latest thinking, based on a review of all the research conducted on HFCS, is that it may actually be no worse for us than any other type of sugar.
Most scientists and doctors now agree that HFCS is safe in moderation. Biochemically, it's similar to table sugar -- roughly 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. "High-fructose corn syrup has the same sweetness, the same number of calories and the same impact on the body as sugar," says James Rippe, MD, a cardiologist and the founder of the Rippe Lifestyle Institute, who studies nutrition and weight management.
HFCS can make us fat if we eat too much of it, but so can sugar, experts say. The real culprit in the obesity crisis is our overconsumption of all kinds of food, period. The average American now eats 425 more calories a day -- an extra meal's worth -- than she did in 1970.
In addition to cutting back on sweeteners, you should monitor the total number of calories that you're consuming, says John White, PhD, a leading expert on HFCS and other sweeteners and the president of White Technical Research, a food and beverage consulting firm. Keeping your total calorie count down will help you stay at a healthy weight and be healthier overall. -- Lauren Cardarelli