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 ounces 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.
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.