By Dr. Nina Radcliff
Along with the joys of our upcoming Halloween, are facts that are truly frightening – consuming more sugar. And we all know it is not just “the children” indulging in the sugary treats, as adults confess to sneaking some of the store-bought candy even before our doorbells ring on Halloween.
What’s really scary about all of this is the fact that even before this October special time of treats – and too, our upcoming Thanksgiving and other December holiday feasts – chances are you and your loved ones are consuming a lot more sugar than you think.
The average American adult consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day (the equivalent of 22 sugar cubes, every 24 hours). That means the average woman eats 70 pounds—nearly half her weight—of straight sugar every year. And, according to a study conducted by The American Heart Association, “per day” children between the ages of 1-3 years old consume around 12 teaspoons; 4-8 year olds 21 teaspoons; and 14-18 year olds 34.3 teaspoons!!
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Sugar
What are added sugars? The United States Department of Agriculture defines it as “sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared.”
The American Heart Association identifies major sources of added sugars as: regular soft drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pies and fruit drinks (fruit ades and fruit punch); dairy desserts and milk products (ice cream, sweetened yogurt and sweetened milk); and other grains (cinnamon toast and honey-nut waffles). As well, other examples of this are when we add a teaspoon of sugar.
What are the recommendations for added sugar? The American Dietary Association’s (ADA) 2015 guidelines advises that we consume less than 10% of our daily calories from added sugar. Added sugars contribute zero nutrients but use up a good portion of our daily calorie allowance. And, in doing so, it is difficult—if not impossible—to meet nutrient needs while staying within caloric limits if we consume more. Nutrients are necessary for our body to function optimally; after all, food fuels our body.
What does increased sugar consumption do?
There is a growing body of evidence that increased sugar consumption is linked to heart disease, cancer production (along with decreased cancer survival), dementia, and weight gain. And let’s not forget that with increased weight, comes a myriad of chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes.
Why are we so sweet on sugar? It is highly addicting. When we consume sugar, it can hack into an area of our brain that releases “feel good” hormones. These hormones were designed to help us survive and provide a reward mechanism, similar to when we see someone we love. They are also the same hormones that are released when people utilize addictive substances such as alcohol or nicotine.
What can I do to cut down on my sugar consumption?
- Read and Understand Nutrition labels
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized the new Nutrition Facts label for packaged food to reflect the 2015 added sugar recommendations by the ADA. Specifically, added sugars will be listed in grams and as percent Daily Value (%DV) on the label to help consumers quickly assess content, compare items, and decide if they want to allocate their 10% of added sugars to that item. This change will take place by the year 2018.
- Watch Out For Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
Sugar comes in a number of forms and with different names, making it tricky to identify–glucose, agave nectar, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup and dextrose to name a few. In addition to reading the added sugar in grams and %DV, make sure to review the list of ingredients on the nutrition label—ingredients are listed in order of quantity from greatest to least. And, too, fast foods and processed foods are loaded with these sugars as well as a number of our favorite salty foods and ketchup, pasta sauces, bread, and rice.
- Fruit and Fiber
Fruit is a great weapon to satisfy and subdue our intense sweet cravings. And while it is true that fruit contains simple sugars, it also contains vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber which can delay the absorption of sugar from our intestines. This decreases sugar highs which prompt insulin release and the consequent sugar lows. Additionally, fiber makes our tummies feel full and can decrease the number of calories we ultimately consume. So the next time we crave for a pastry, instead, indulge with a banana, apple, grapes, pear, or pineapple….the list goes on.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners
These no-calorie sweeteners seem like the perfect solution to our sugar problem. However, there are a number of indirect consequences that we should be aware of. Artificial sweeteners can be up to 600 times sweeter than sugar. As a result, it distorts our sweet expectations. One cookie may not be enough—we will likely reach for another and another to gratify our supercharged craving.
Additionally, when we consume sweet items—either artificial sweeteners or actual sugar–our body expects calories and nutrition. However, artificial sugars fail to provide either of these. Many experts believe that this is the reason that sweeteners lead to weight gain—our body continues to crave for food items and we continue to consume them to meet these needs.
- Inject bursts of flavor into our food
Injecting flavorful spices, herbs, and items into our foods can satisfy our taste buds and potentially decrease our sugar consumption. And, too, many of these items—cinnamon, coriander, vinegar, cloves, cocoa powder, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla bean or extract, or citrus zest—are not just flavorful, but they are also filled with antioxidants, nutrients, and vitamins.
- Avoid Dehydration
Sometimes what we perceive as a sugar craving may really just be a sign of thirst. So the next time we are yearning and craving for that sugar fix, let’s consider reaching for a glass—or two—of water first. We may not even want the sugary item after.
At the end of day (and our special celebrations seasons) – more sugar is not a “treat,” or “sweet” or “merry” for our health. A healthy diet can include that occasional piece of candy or slice of cake –- or whatever your sweet treat of choice is– just not every day. And sugar has a powerful presence in American childhood with candy doled out and sugary sodas or juices still being the beverage of choice. As we approach these special days into Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas – plan now to “be aware” and manage our sugar intake.
We all will benefit in knowing how much sugar we are choosing to consume — knowledge is power – and that understanding can directly impact our choices. It is true – the choices we make today is the life we lead tomorrow. As with many things, when it comes to diet, going overboard today could lead to unwanted health effects tomorrow! Let’s be mindful and take action to cut our sugar intake – we’ll be healthier as a result!
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.