America’s got a sweet tooth — and it’s killing us! Overconsumption of sugar has been linked to a variety of chronic health problems, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
But it’s almost impossible for us to avoid the sweet stuff because our food is loaded with it. You find sugar not only in sweets but also in fruit, vegetables, and everyday staples such as bread, pasta, and ketchup. But the worst offenders are the wide array of sodas, designer coffees, fruit punches, and other sugar-laden drinks.
“As a nation, we are consuming too much sugar, much of it through sweetened beverages,” registered dietitian Joan Salge Blake tells Newsmax Health. “We’re gulping it, not eating it, and in the process are consuming added calories without any added nutrition.”
The federal government updated U.S. food labeling laws in May, requiring for the first time that nutrition labels list a breakdown of both the total sugars and the added sugars in packaged foods, beginning in 2018.
The body turns sugar into glucose, which fuels muscles and metabolism. But when it’s not all burned off, it’s stored as unhealthy fat. Health experts have long debated whether sugar is really that bad for your health, and whether sweeteners added to foods are more harmful than those found naturally in fruit and other foods.
The latest research shows that sugars are basically the same, whether they come from fruit or candy or the sugar bowl. But nutritionists also note that eating naturally sweet foods — such as fruit — is a better option than loading up on processed cakes, cookies, and pastries.
“There’s some truth in saying ‘sugar is sugar,’ ” notes Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian based in Washington, D.C. “The body can’t tell the difference between natural sugar and added sugar, and processes it all the same way.”
Still, there’s a big difference in how the sugar is packaged. For example, a large apple has the same amount of sugar as six Oreo cookies. But it’s much healthier to eat the apple.
“We generally don’t worry about natural sugar, like you find in fresh fruit, because we’re getting other compounds that are good for us,” notes Blake, an associate clinical professor in Boston University’s Nutrition Program. “Fruit is loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber.”
Fiber, in particular, has a beneficial effect because it changes the pace at which the sugars are processed.
“Fiber slows down the digestion of carbohydrates, so it has a buffer effect on blood sugar rise,” explains Carol Sherman, a registered dietitian and nutritional therapist based in Boca Raton, Fla. “That’s why you don’t get the same blood sugar spike from an apple that you would get from a soft drink.”
Fiber is also satiating, so you feel fuller when you consume a piece of fruit as opposed to sugary junk food or drinks.
Studies going back more than four decades show that the natural sugars in fruits don’t promote weight gain. In fact, the research suggests that eating fresh fruit decreases the risk of obesity and diabetes. And when people cut back on fruit consumption, it doesn’t dramatically affect their blood sugar or weight.
“People who eat a lot of fruit and vegetables are healthier than those who don’t,” Dubost tells Newsmax Health.
But the experts say that people should definitely limit their consumption of products with added sugars, which include the seemingly ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup. And natural sweeteners such as honey and agave aren’t much better.
“Agave actually has more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup,” says Dubost. “And honey has a health halo, but at the end of the day you’re getting the same amount of sugar with just traces of nutrition.”
Another alternative is artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet), saccharin (Sweet’N Low) and sucralose (Splenda), which sweeten without calories. While there are unproven but persistent fears that the chemicals in these products may contribute to chronic diseases including cancer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration insists they are safe.
“They have a role in weight loss because if you start eliminating sweetness people won’t follow the diet,” says Dubost. “They are a tool in the toolbox of weight management.”
You can also try stevia leaf extract (Truvia), a natural no-calorie sweetener.
“Stevia is the best bet,” Sherman tells Newsmax Health. “But in a perfect world, I’d like to see people use a little less sugar rather than a sugar substitute.”
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