Uncovering the Facts about the Sweet Substance We Love
At risk of being the Grinch who stole Halloween, perhaps we should rethink a holiday built around candy.
Even without that annual fix, we’re already sugar junkies. Each week we gulp or eat nearly three pounds of the white powder — up 43 percent from two pounds weekly in 1959, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And pound by pound, we’re killing ourselves. The resulting obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease, inactivity and possibly dementia, report experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
“Thanks to obesity, our kids are expected to have shorter life spans than their parents,” says Shreela Sharma, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., associate professor of epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health and faculty member at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. “We’re in a health crisis.”
Break it down and the average American mainlines 32 teaspoons of added sweeteners daily. That’s more than three times the American Heart Association’s suggested levels of nine teaspoons or 150 calories for men, five times the six teaspoons or 100 calories for women and 10 times the three teaspoons or 50 calories for children.
Worst offenders are teens, with about 34 teaspoons of the sweet stuff daily, says a recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Stats grow more atrocious for precocious youths. “A child by age 5 has eaten more sugar than their parents did by age 18,” Sharma says. “Before every lunch, they’ve already had more sugar than you need in an entire day, from cereals, sodas, juices, granola bars and yogurt.”
What lures us to the white side?
Actually, we shouldn’t swear off sugar. “We all need sugar to survive. It’s our body’s primary energy source,” says Sharma.
Sugar is so vital that while the body finds candy dandy, it also welcomes and converts all carbohydrates — including starches such as bread, pasta, rice, crackers and chips — into glucose. When sugar enters blood to be used by your body, you feel revved up.
Unneeded glucose is diverted to your internal gas tanks — muscles and the liver — to be stored until needed. But just as a car’s gas tank can overflow, so can your muscle and liver reserves. The excess winds up in your fat cells — which, alas, have limitless capacity.
Meanwhile, your pancreas tries to keep your blood sugar on an even keel by releasing its own balancing act, the hormone insulin. This sets in motion a more effective way for your muscles and liver to absorb glucose.
But the more sugar you eat, the more your body must react. With time, worn cells fail to respond to insulin, which only makes the body secrete more, says Heinrich Taegtmeyer, M.D., D.Phil., professor of cardiovascular medicine at UTHealth Medical School.
“Too much sugar is too much of a good thing, definitely for the heart,” Taegtmeyer says. “The heart muscle is not able to handle the sugar rush as well as other organs. With few ways to stash the extra fuel, the unused sugar feeds heart muscle cells. They do grow, only the new material is weaker. Sugar coats proteins — cells’ basic workhorses — making them function poorly. This leads to a weakened heart, blindness, poorly functioning kidneys and a 1.2- to 1.5-fold increased chance of dementia.”
At the same time, our caloric candy crush moves from our lips to our hips. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and more than a third are obese (20 percent above their desirable weight), reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That percentage has more than doubled in the past 35 years. And kids are catching up: 17 percent are obese, triple the rate from just one generation (20 years) ago.
The obese have high blood pressure, a three-fold spike in risk of diabetes and around a two-fold jump in heart disease, all ailments that shorten lifespan. Diabetes alone is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and the major cause of kidney failure, blindness and non-traumatic leg amputation — all for the often preventable crime of making your body a sugar shack.
One in 10 people get a whopping one-fourth or more of their calories from added sugar. These sugar hounds are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets are less than 10 percent added sugar, says the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine in a 15-year-study reported this year.
Still, you don’t have to be curvaceous for sugar to throw your body a curve, the study noted. Overall, the odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in the diet — and that was true regardless of a person’s body-mass index (a weight measure), age, sex or physical activity level.
Why are we hooked?
Don’t blame us. We’ve been hardwired since day one to seek sugar, says Prashant Gajwani, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UTHealth Medical School. “It’s a primitive instinct. We learned to eat as many calories as possible since we didn’t know when we’d get our next meal. The problem is we’re still wired that way, despite having three square meals and many snacks daily.”
This sugar craving isn’t surprising: Sweet treats seem to release the same feel-good neurochemicals of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins in the brain as alcohol, nicotine and heroin. While sugar stimulates the same part of the brain, its grip isn’t as fierce. “It’s not like you have one or 10 hits and you’re hooked,” Sharma says. “You may obsess about your next fix, but it’s more a habit than an addiction: What your body gets used to, it will crave — and that leads to overeating.”
But there’s good news: If you eat fruits and whole grains versus just desserts and sugary sodas, that’s what your body will crave, Sharma says.
Your body absorbs their complex carbs more slowly, thus reducing the rollercoaster of dizzying sugar highs and lows you may feel after binging on cookies, candy and prepared foods. “You’ll feel full faster — and longer — so you won’t eat as much,” Sharma adds.
Now that’s sweet.
How to Retreat from Sweets
Try these 12 tips to thwart your risk of “diabesity” — as some researchers now call the entwined obesity and diabetes epidemics:
- Check all food labels. Cut consumption of those food products with these in their top three ingredients: sugar, honey, agave, molasses, corn sweetener, all syrups and words ending in –ose, such as glucose, maltose, lactose (from milk) and fructose (from fruit). Also avoid lower calorie sugar alcohols ending in –itol, such as xylitol and sorbitol. “If you don’t understand it or can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it,” Sharma says.
- Be wary of packaged foods such as salad dressing, pizza, hot dogs, crackers, spaghetti sauce, yogurt, granola bars, ketchup, mayonnaise, Cole slaw, lunch meat, potato chips, energy drinks and instant oatmeal, says Monica Patel, M.D., assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine at UTHealth Medical School and member of the Century Health Study team. One teaspoon of sugar lurks in each tablespoon of ketchup, two teaspoons in each slice of whole-wheat bread and 10 teaspoons in each can of sugar-sweetened soda.
- Resist “sugar-free” foods. Sugar substitutes such as Truvia, Sweet’N Low, Equal and Splenda contain synthetic sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame. “Although these taste sweet, they send the brain conflicting messages — instead of the feeling of fullness that helps curb a sweet tooth and overeating,” Patel says.
- Reach for water first. “Often people don’t drink enough and are actually thirsty but go for sugar instead,” Gajwani says.
- Don’t reward good behavior with sweets, starting in childhood. “Otherwise you set up a lifetime of bad habits,” Gajwani says.
- Are you really hungry or frustrated, stressed or bored? Distract yourself by exercising, reading, meditating, walking your dog or manicuring your nails, Gajwani says.
- Motivate yourself and you’re more likely to succeed. Focus on several health numbers — blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat percentage and heart disease risk — not just numbers on a scale, Patel says.
- Urge your spouse or coworkers not to bring foods you crave into your home or office, Gajwani says.
- Spice up food with flavor-boosting cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices, even jalapenos, Patel says. Also try new foods, such as brown rice, quinoa or whole wheat pasta. Your family might love them.
- Limit portions without a scale. One cup of cereal, pasta or rice equals a baseball, tennis ball or size of a woman’s fist. A half cup of oatmeal is a hockey puck, a bread serving is a CD case and one teaspoon equals a salad dressing’s bottle cap or the tip to the first joint of your pinkie.
- At Halloween, hand out party favors like mini-nail polishes, stickers, games and toys instead of candies, Patel says.