By Jodi Helmer
Salad dressing, cereal, soda: It’s hard to find foods and beverages that don’t contain sugar, often cloaked by names such as dextrose, evaporated cane juice, or sucralose. “Sugar is everywhere,” says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, a Hawaii-based physician, naturopath and author, with Skye Alexander and Meera Lester, of Self-Care for Life (Adams Media).
The average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) of sugar every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which adds up to a whopping 66 pounds of added sugar every year.
The biggest culprits are beverages sweetened with sugar, says the CDC. The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar, that which doesn’t occur naturally in foods, per day. The daily limit for women is just six teaspoons. A can of regular soda contains eight teaspoons of sugar; gulping just one can would put a woman over her daily limit.
“Your body needs sugar,” Dean says. “But consuming too much sugar throws your system out of whack and starts causing health problems.”
Our appetite for sugar is wreaking havoc on our well-being.
“Added sugar is only adding calories, nothing more. There is almost no nutrient benefit,” explains dietitian Linda Van Horn, PHD, RD, associate dean in the department of Preventive Medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and spokesperson for the American Heart Association. “Your body has to cope with the extra sugar load, which challenges your insulin levels and contributes to risk of weight gain with no nutrients.”
In addition to the empty calories that help pack on pounds, sugar has been linked to diseases that include obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. A 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who consumed 25% or more of their daily calories from sugar were more than two times more likely to die from heart disease than those who consumed 10% or less, regardless of age or weight. In 2010, another JAMA Internal Medicine study found a link between high sugar consumption and elevated triglycerides (blood fats) and lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.
In addition, there appears to be a connection between fructose, one of the most abundant sources of sugar in the average diet, and a buildup of fat in the liver called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), according to a 2013 study in Hepatology. (A 2014 meta-analysis in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition asserts that too many calories, regardless of their source, were to blame for NAFLD.)
Your Brain on Sugar
Overconsumption of sugar takes its toll on mental function, too.
“Sugar is our number one recreational drug of choice,” notes JJ Virgin, CNS, nutritionist and author of The Sugar Impact Diet (Grand Central Life & Style). “It has a morphine-like impact on our brains.”
In fact, drinking soda appears to alter brain chemistry, according to a 2015 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. Researchers found that compared with those who drank soda sweetened with aspartame, women who drank three sugar-sweetened sodas per day for two weeks showed increased activity in the hippocampus, the brain region associated with emotions and memory; their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were also lower, leading researchers to conclude that drinking soda alters how the brain responds to stress.
Eating a lot of sugar seems to have a negative impact on brain structure and function. Research published in the journal Neurology in 2013 found that higher glucose levels were linked with poor memory and a smaller hippocampus, leading researchers to assert that higher blood sugar could disrupt memory. A 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that high glucose levels could be a risk factor for dementia.
Dean believes there is also a connection between sugar consumption and the production of yeast, which can trigger inflammation, low energy levels and brain fog. “If you eat too much sugar, you’ll feel almost hung over because the yeast creates alcohol in your intestines,” she says.
The more sugar we consume, the harder it is to kick the habit. “When you eat sweets, the sugar lights up the pleasure centers in your brain and makes your body crave sweeter and sweeter foods,” Virgin explains. “You lose appreciation for the natural sweetness in foods and crave sugar from processed sources.”
Even the most devoted label-readers might not recognize sugar hiding in their foods. In his lectures, Robert Lustig, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist and author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease (Plume), notes that there are 56 different names for sugar—including cane sugar, molasses, maltodextrin, carob, cane juice, dextrose, diatase, caramel, beet sugar, sorghum syrup, barley malt and sucrose—which makes it difficult to eliminate sugar from our diets.
“No one sets out to eat that much sugar,” Virgin says. “But labels can be misleading.”
It may help to understand why you crave the sweet stuff. “To beat sugar addiction, first you’ll need to figure out which type of sugar addict you are,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia expert and author, with Chrystle Fiedler, of The Complete Guide to Beating Sugar Addiction (Fair Winds). In his experience, people crave sugar for one of four reasons: They’re looking for quick energy via sugar and caffeine; stress has zapped their adrenal glands, leading to irritation and fatigue; they’re driven to seek sugar due to yeast overgrowth; or their cravings are driven by hormonal changes related to the menstrual cycle, or menopause or its male equivalent, andropause.
To get your sugar intake down to AHA-recommended limits, Van Horn suggests eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages and reading nutrition labels to understand how much sugar is in your favorite foods, steering clear of those items that contain more than 10 grams of sugar per serving. Beyond that first step, the simplest way to cut added sugar out of your diet, and avoid blood sugar crashes, is to eat more protein and healthy fats (see the recipe below for an example).
“We have to teach our bodies how to burn fat, not sugar, for a fuel source,” Virgin says. “The less sugar you eat, the better you’ll feel.”
Stabilizing Eggs Supreme
This recipe provides an excellent example of how to get healthy fats, such as those found in
extra-virgin olive or coconut oil, with clean protein, such as that found in eggs (especially if they’re organic), in a single dish. It also provides an array of micronutrients, particularly vitamins A,
B2 (riboflavin), B12 and D.
2 tbsp heavy cream
freshly ground black pepper
dash of cayenne pepper
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil or coconut oil (melted)
1 small red onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp cream cheese, cut into small cubes
1 ripe avocado, sliced
2 cups spinach or mixed salad greens
1. Preheat the broiler. In a medium bowl, use a fork to whisk together eggs, cream, black pepper and cayenne. Set the mixture aside.
2. In a nonstick skillet, melt oil over medium-high heat; when hot, sauté onion and garlic until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside.
3. Melt butter in the skillet and add egg mixture. As eggs cook, lift the edges with a spatula to allow uncooked mixture to seep underneath. When the bottom is set but the top is still moist, place cream cheese cubes and onion mixture over the eggs and place under the broiler for 2-
3 minutes, checking frequently, until top is golden and puffy.
4. Top with avocado and serve over a bed of spinach or greens.
Rethinking Nutrition Labels
A glut of new research linking sugar to adverse health effects led the US Department of Agriculture to reexamine its dietary guidelines.
“People are confused about natural sugars verses added sugars,” explains Joan Salge Blake, RD, professor of nutrition at Boston University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The 2015 report from the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee restates the recommendation to limit consumption of added sugars to a maximum of 10% of total calories; there is no proposed limit for the consumption of naturally occurring sugars in foods like milk and fruit.
One of the proposed changes includes redesigning nutrition labels to make them easier to understand. The report calls for listing added sugars in grams and tablespoons, and including a percent daily value for the sugars in packaged foods.
The change, according to Salge Blake, could help consumers make better choices. Regardless of whether the proposed changes are put into effect, it’s essential to continue reading labels.
“Be wary of nutrition labels that list multiple different sources of sugar, especially refined sugars like sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup,” Salge Blake says. “These are all buzzwords for sugar and contribute to the overall amount of sugar in a food.”
Jacob Teitelbaum says this bread is free of dairy, wheat and gluten (buckwheat isn’t a type of wheat at all—it’s a rhubarb relative with grain-like seeds). He suggests topping thin slices with low-glycemic goodies such as avocado or hummus.
1 1/4 cups buckwheat pancake mix
1 cup polenta or maize meal
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup coconut or rice milk
1/3 cup purified water
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush an 8” loaf pan with olive oil, line with parchment paper and brush the paper with olive oil.
2. Place the pancake mix, polenta, baking powder and salt in a large bowl and combine thoroughly. In a small bowl, beat the egg and add the coconut or rice milk, water and 1/4 cup oil. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until well blended.
3. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes. Rotate the pan and bake for another 12 to 15 minutes. (It is done when a skewer comes out clean.)
4. Remove from the pan immediately and peel off the paper lining. Cool on a wire rack in fresh air to develop a crust. Best served the same day or toasted over the next couple of days.