Sugar has gotten a really bad name in recent years, in fact so bad that an increasing number of food manufacturers and restaurateurs have announced their intentions to replace refined white sugar with purportedly more natural, healthier substitutes like honey, maple syrup or molasses.
The Problem With Sugar Is that
It’s Ubiquitous But Hidden in Our Diet
However, to think that alternative sweeteners to sugar are healthier is plainly false, according to Dr. Rachel K. Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association (AHA). “Some of those sweeteners – like maple syrup, molasses, honey – may have a stronger taste, so you might be able to get the sweetness you want with less of it, using less calories. [But] the bottom line is that they are all simple sugars. A calorie of sugar is a calorie of sugar, so whether you’re getting it from white sugar or some other type of sweetener, you’re still adding empty calories to your diet.”
Sugars are naturally present in many foods, but these aren’t the types that should cause us concern. When nutrition experts warn that Americans are consuming way too much sugar, they point to the added sugars, e.g. in form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is almost omnipresent in processed foods and soda drinks. It is HFCS and other artificial sweeteners – not the naturally occurring sugars like fructose in fruit or lactose in milk or dairy products – that is widely seen as a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic in this country and increasingly around the world.
“Eating too much sugar creates two main problems,” says Dr. Johnson who is the lead author of the AHA’s scientific statement on added sugars and cardiovascular health. “It either adds calories to your diet or it displaces other nutritious foods. For those reasons alone, most Americans would benefit from reducing the amount of added sugars in their diet.”
Americans now consume nearly 20 percent more sugar in their diet than they did only a generation ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). We must get back to more moderate levels, says Dr. Johnson. The AHA statement recommends a limit of six teaspoons of sugar for women (about 100 calories) and nine teaspoons for men (about 150 calories) per day. A single 12-oz. can of regular soda contains about eight teaspoons of sugar (about 130 calories).
High amounts of empty calories causing weight gain are not the only issue we should be concerned with. Clinical studies have found that high sugar consumption may lead to heart-hazardous levels of fat and cholesterol in the blood. There is clearly an association between sugar intake and higher triglycerides and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, according to the AHA statement.
Excessive sugar consumption is also seen as a culprit for diabetes, although eating sugar per se does not cause the disease. Rather, weight problems resulting from high intake of sugary sodas and processed foods can promote the development of diabetes.
Obviously, the best defense against high sugar levels in your diet is to limit or eliminate processed foods and soda drinks as much as possible. If you have a sweet tooth, try to stick with natural sugars from fruits instead of pastries, cookies and candy. This may not be enough to escape the sugar trap altogether, but it’s a good start.