America Runs on Donuts, and That’s a Bad Thing

Do you know how much sugar you’ve consumed today? If you’re an average American, it’s likely in the ballpark of 420 calories worth – 28 teaspoons! The recommendation is no more than 100 calories/6 teaspoons for women and 150 calories/9 teaspoons for men. Consider that a single piece of Black-Out Cake from The Cheesecake Factory contains 38 teaspoons of added sugar and a 24-ounce Very Vanilla Shake from Cold Stone Creamery includes 33 teaspoons, and you can see that many of us are in big, big trouble.

It’s not because we are standing around pouring sugar into our mouths that we are consuming so damn much sugar – it is added to 75% of the foods and beverages available for purchase at the grocery store. You might think you’re safe because you don’t drink soda and don’t buy “junk food” like cookies or toaster pastries, or because you don’t order dessert very often, but have you checked out the sugar content of your pasta sauce or your oatmeal? The fact that Americans now spend 23% of their grocery money on processed foods while it was half this much 20 years ago goes a long way towards explaining how we got ourselves into this predicament.

The fact that people who eat more sugar tend to weigh more is far from being the only problem; eating a high sugar diet has been shown to increase your risk of developing: diabetes, non-alcohol fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, high blood sugar, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, or gout. You might have heard that sugar causes cancer and the spread of cancer, but this is one thing that you can stop worrying about for now. Currently, there is very little evidence outside of preliminary animal research that this is true. Being overweight, though, definitely increases the risk of many types of cancer.

Scarily enough, drinking only half a can of soda with each meal is enough to impact your cardiac risk profile negatively. For every 12 ounce can that you drink, your risk of diabetes increases by 15%. If you drink two cans a day, your risk of heart attack is 35% higher than if you drank no more than one can a month. If you drink a liter a day, the fat content of your liver and muscle will be more than doubled. This liver fat triggers metabolic reactions that lead to insulin resistance and the development of diabetes. Surprisingly, only lean and athletic individuals can handle more than one small glass of fruit juice a day, even though it’s long marketed as a “healthy” beverage choice for everyone.

High fructose corn syrup and table sugar have very similar effects on blood levels of insulin, glucose, triglycerides, and satiety hormones (the hormones that signal your brain when you’re full). It’s not just high fructose corn syrup that is about half fructose and half glucose – most sweeteners are:

Sweetener % Fructose
Agave nectar 88%
Apple juice concentrate 67%
High fructose corn syrup 55%
Grape juice concentrate 52%
Orange juice concentrate 51%
Honey 51%
Table sugar 50%
Molasses 50%
Brown sugar 50%
Maple syrup 49%

 According to some experts, the big problem with high fructose corn syrup that makes it different from other sweeteners is how it is metabolized. Fructose is exclusively metabolized in the liver, and when the liver gets overloaded with fructose, it turns some of the fructose into fat, which ends up as triglycerides in our blood. Having high triglycerides will eventually lead to our also having elevated LDL-cholesterol levels. The concern with high fructose corn syrup stems from the fact that the glucose and fructose in it aren’t chemically bonded like they are in table sugar; when you consume high fructose corn syrup, the fructose molecules are free to float around in your blood unbound.

Fructose might be more likely to end up as fat around your midsection than other sugars. This deep belly fat is the riskiest for your heart and blood glucose levels. It also seems possible that fructose causes us to burn less fat and more carbohydrate and enhances the body’s ability to turn carbohydrate into fat. Eating large amounts of fructose-containing foods also encourages the development of gout, which is a painful inflammation of the joints caused by the buildup of uric acid. Uric acid also increased blood pressure.

Before you decide that you need to avoid all fruit because it contains fructose, let me ask you a question: How many apples are you eating? Are you pounding 20 in a sitting? If so, you should cut that out for a bunch of reasons. On the other hand, how many cookies can you eat in one sitting or how much soda can you drink during the day? A whole lot. Fruit is not the enemy.

If the food that you’re eating doesn’t contain any (or very little) milk or fruit, the label will tell you how many grams of sugar in your food are “added sugar”; this is easy because all of the sugar in these foods is added. You can discern how many calories in the food comes from added sugar by multiplying the number of grams of sugar by four. This math doesn’t work for foods and beverages containing milk or fruit because they also include natural sugars. For now, our nutrition labels don’t separate sugar into two distinct categories: natural and added.

You don’t have much room for added sugar if you’re eating all of the servings of produce, lean protein, whole grains, and other essential food groups that you should be. For example, a woman would need to take in about 1600 calories worth of food every day to get the recommended amount of servings from each food group. This leaves her with roughly 200 “discretionary” calories a day – this is split into 100 calories of solid fat and 100 calories of added sugar each day. Solid fats are butter, margarine, the fat in high-fat dairy products, poultry skin, bakery items, etc. If you like to have a glass of wine with dinner, this comes out of your discretionary calories, so you don’t have much left for added sugars or solid fats.

Unfortunately, looking for the word “sugar” on the ingredient label is not enough. You have to check for dozens of names for sugar, including dextrose, malt syrup, maltose, barley malt, rice syrup, beet sugar, date sugar, maltodextrin, and brown rice syrup. Beets sound healthy, as do dates and brown rice, but sugar is sugar regardless of the form that it takes.