The holiday season is right around the corner and as you grab that pumpkin spice latte, indulge in some pecan pie or bake batches of cookies, how much are you really paying attention to the amount of sugar you’re eating?
Sure, they’re short-lived treats so you give yourself permission to enjoy them. Yet what may surprise you is that it’s not just sugar-laden desserts that we should be cutting back on. Experts say all types of sugar, whether they’re natural or added, can affect our waistlines and our health.
Read on to find out how sugar can make you sick, the surprising foods sugar sneaks into, and how you can still make it a part of a healthy diet.
Non-nutritive vs. nutritive sweeteners
Despite the fact that they’re natural and are often touted as healthy alternatives to table sugar, non-nutritive sugars like honey and agave fall into this category because they contain only calories.
Nutritive sugars, however, like fructose and lactose, are natural and have calories, but they also have some nutritional benefit. For example, fruit has fructose and vitamin C and milk has lactose as well as protein and calcium.
“If the sweetener comes with vitamins and nutrients that our bodies need for healthy growth, those we really don’t have to worry so much about,” said Libby Mills, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
The USDA estimates the average American eats 76.7 pounds of sugar each year. According to a report by AND, the average adult in the U.S. consumes 14.6 percent of their calories from added sugars alone. What’s more, a recent report in the journal Obesity Society found the amount of added sugars we’re eating has increased by about 30 percent over the last three decades.
Whether it’s natural, nutritive, or added, experts say we’re just plain eating too much.
“The biggest problem with sugar is that we’re eating less table sugar than ever, but we’re eating more sugar overall,” said JJ Virgin, celebrity nutritionist and author of “The Sugar Impact Diet.”
“We pulled the fat out of food, put the sugar in place of it and now we’ve created a nation of sugar addicts,” she said. “Sugar is a drug, it’s the biggest drug we have.”
How sugar affects health
Although more people are making better choices, nearly 35 percent of adults are obese, and sugar is partly to blame. A diet high in sugar is also linked to prediabetes, diabetes, osteoarthritis, stroke and heart disease. In fact, a study published earlier this year in JAMA Internal Medicine found that those who have diets high in sugar are more likely to die from heart disease even if they’re not overweight.
Sugar causes inflammation, which is also your body’s way of healing an injury, such as a cut or a cold. Yet it’s the chronic inflammation caused by poor diet, lack of exercise and environmental factors over time that can add up to big health problems.
Inflammation has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease and signs of aging. A high-sugar diet can lead to insulin resistance, and in turn has been shown to drive development of cancer.
Even if you don’t have diabetes but you have a high fasting blood sugar, you have an increased risk for dementia, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found.
Eating too much sugar is also the cause of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which affects 19 percent of people, according to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Experts expect incidence of the disease to rise.
Yet it’s not just disease that sugar’s to blame for.
“It’s the daily hit to your energy levels, your focus, your GI tract, your immune system and to your self confidence,” Virgin said.
There are more than 55 names for sugar, which can make it hard to find on food labels. Processed foods are one of the biggest sources and about 80 percent contain added sugar.
Soda is a no-brainer, but sweetened energy drinks are traps too.
“It sets you up for a blood sugar roller coaster and it can leave you bottomed out,” Mills said.
Sugar also shows up in surprising places and we’re none the wiser. Whole wheat bread—a seemingly healthy choice— can actually raise your blood sugar more than table sugar. Gluten-free breads are no better since they often use rice flour, potato starch and fruit juice concentrate. Manufacturers can add fruit juice concentrate to a product and use the “no sugar added” claim.
Fat-free salad dressings, marinara sauce, peanut butter, rice cakes have sneaky sugars too. Many yogurts even have more sugar than ice cream.
“There’s a ton of confusion as to what is a good, healthy choice and what’s not,” Virgin said.
Burn fat, not sugar
Eating by the glycemic index can be beneficial, but one of the drawbacks is that fruit is considered low on the scale because it doesn’t raise blood sugar. Unlike other types of sugar, fructose goes straight to the liver because it’s the only organ that can metabolize it.
So if you eat a small amount of fructose, it gets converted into glucose and is stored as glycogen so you’ll have carbohydrates for energy. But since there’s a limited amount of room in the liver, if you’re constantly eating fructose, the liver turns it into fat. So instead of burning fat, you’re burning sugar.
“Ultimately you want to make sugar from carbohydrates, you don’t want to mainline sugar,” Virgin said.
Sugar makes life sweeter
Cutting down on sugar is a good choice, but completely banning it from your diet? Not so much. The more you tell yourself you can’t, the more you’ll crave.
“Sugar can be a part of a healthy eating plan,” Mills said.
In March, the World Health Organization released new recommendations stating that no more than 5 percent of our daily caloric intake, or 25 grams a day, should be from added sugars. The FDA has also proposed including added sugar amounts to food labels.
Yet paying attention to other sources of sugar is key, too. A good start is to read labels and gradually reduce the amount of sugar you’re eating. Eating regularly, and including protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats at every meal will keep your blood sugar on an even keel and make you feel satisfied. Cut back on caffeine, or at the very least, be aware if drinking coffee makes you crave sweets.
“If food is information, you want to make sure that what you’re doing is telling your body to use steady, sustained energy and be able to burn off stored fat,” Virgin said.
If you really want that piece of dark chocolate, go for it, but eat it slowly.
“If you allow yourself to appreciate the texture, the nuances, and the flavor, and let it linger over your tongue, after two or three bites you’ll get the craving taken care of,” Mills said.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.