Recently sugar has come under fire as a culprit for a plethora of health concerns, ranging from cancer to obesity. The average American consumes approximately one third of a pound of sugar each day, translating into nearly 130 pounds of sugar per person every year. As a nation sugar usage exceeds 9 million tons a year.
This week researchers at the University of California reported that an excess consumption of high fructose corn syrup, a popular sugar source, is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Specifically the authors controlled the diet of volunteers and observed the health effects. One group of participants had 25 percent of their caloric intake replaced with sweetened drinks.
Within 2 weeks this group had increased levels of LDL cholesterol, a known risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
While increased cholesterol is traditionally thought to be a consequence of a fatty diet, the researchers hypothesize, that the liver when faced with a surplus of sugar converts some of it into fat which then enters the blood stream as LDL cholesterol. Excess LDL is known to deposit in arteries to form plaques with can block blood flow, resulting in heart attack or stroke.
The remarkable thing about this study is that the volume of sugar consumed by the volunteers is not outside the realm of normality. For instance, based on a 2,000 calorie diet, one would only have to drink two 20-ounce bottles of soda a day in order to receive 25 percent of one’s caloric intake from sugar.
According to the American Heart Association soft drinks are the biggest contributor of added sugars in our diets. Not only are soft drinks responsible for increasing our sugar consumption but epidemiologic studies are now finding that they also contribute to many health problems independently.
Last week researchers from the Harvard school for Public Health found that drinking just one sugar-sweetened beverage a day was associated with a 20 percent increase in ones risk of heart attack over a 22 year period. Interestingly this trend remained significant even when controlling for lifestyle variables that could contribute to an increased risk of heart disease. Additional studies have identified links between soda consumption and metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, and even osteoporosis.
I recommend treating soda as a dessert, something that should be enjoyed sparingly, not as a routine component of your diet. Substituting soda for water is a great way to increase hydration. If you are craving soda, I recommend getting the smallest size can. Bottles of soda are nearly three times the size of the original 8-ounce serving size. Furthermore, by choosing a smaller container you are more likely to be satisfied by your snack then if you choose to drink only a proportion of a larger bottle.
For children, it is particularly important to control soda consumption. Studies have shown that the amount of soda in one’s diet negatively correlates with milk intake. In children, milk is a vital source of calcium which is necessary for strong bone development. Bone health early in life is key to preventing osteoporosis and osteopenia later in life.
As for sugar, it is nearly impossible and unnecessary to remove completely from ones diet. Sugar is naturally found in most foods, however avoidance of refined process sugar is key to a healthier lifestyle. Try to decrease the number of steps between the original food source and your table. For instance instead of eating candy when craving something sweet, choose a piece of fruit. Fruit is a natural source of sugar paired with fiber, which will keep you full longer and improve digestion.