How much sugar do we eat? Did you know that the average American consumes an astounding 2-3 pounds of sugar each week? In the last twenty years the average person has increased their annual sugar consumption from 26 to 135 pounds of sugar! Prior to the turn of the century (1887-1890), this figure was only 5 pounds.
How much sugar should we get? The average adult requires approximately 400 grams of carbohydrates daily. These come in the form of complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates. While complex carbohydrates are healthy and necessary, simple carbohydrates can be harmful, especially in large quantities and when they are processed or refined. The US Department of Agriculture recommends we do not eat more than 40 grams refined carbohydrates daily, about 8 tsp of sugar. One Minute Maid Orange Soda alone has 48 grams.
What are the effects of refined simple sugars? Excessive poor sugars are one of the most significant contributors to our current health crisis including high rates of cancer, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, anxiety and attention deficit disorders, heart disease, asthma and Alzheimer’s. For example, a large study of 1.3 million Koreans over 10 years linked sugar to increased risk for colorectal, oesophagus, liver and cervical cancer. This is no surprise since cancer cells metabolize through a process of fermentation that relies primarily on sugars. But it also relates to sugars link to inflammation, depressed immunity and much more.
What is wrong with excess simple sugars? There are many ways in which refined simple sugars cause disease in our bodies. Simple sugars, unlike complex ones, are rapidly absorbed into our blood streams. This has a number of outcomes: (1) insulin spikes to help lower blood sugar and this signals the body to store fat and to produce cholesterol (contributing to obesity and heart disease), (2) sugar competes with vitamin C to get into cells causing a 75% reduction in our immune system capacity, (3) excess sugar triggers an inflammatory response in the body which plays a role in virtually all chronic diseases from cancer to heart disease and arthritis, (4) causes dehydration and salt and water retention, (5) causes hyperacidity in the stomach, (6) simple sugars attach themselves to proteins producing end products that cause the nerve damage, cataracts, aging and other side effects common to diabetes, (7) sugars bind to produce excessive mucus in the body, aggravating asthma and the like.
How do refined sugars affect us? Refined sugars lack the vitamins and minerals naturally found in whole cane or beet sugars. These nutrients exist partly to help your body metabolize those sugars properly. When absent, your body’s mineral supplies are drawn upon in order to balance this disruption, depleting your own supplies. For example, we are depleted of magnesium and potassium needed for proper heart functioning and blood pressure regulation, of a range of minerals needed for proper functioning of our adrenal and thyroid glands, and of calcium necessary for proper bone formation. Furthermore, normal metabolism of fats and carbohydrates is disrupted, causing elevated triglycerides and cholesterol linked to heart disease and predisposing ourselves to diabetes.
Where are we getting our sugar? Besides from the obvious addition of sugar into your hot beverages, sugar is added into almost every processed food you buy: ketchup, salt, peanut butter, canned vegetables, bouillon cubes, medicines, breads/crackers/buns, pastries, cereals, mayonnaise, pasta sauce, juice, salad dressings, most sauces, and candies. Would you ever add 8 teaspoons of sugar to your food? One of the worst sugar guzzling habits we have is the consumption of fruit juices and pop. There are 10 tsp of sugar in Mountain Dew, 9 tsp of sugar in Pepsi/Coke, 8 tsp in grape juice, 6 tsp in Sunny Delight and 5 tsp in orange juice. That one coke gives you close to 30 grams of refined simple sugars.
How the sugar adds up! A typical breakfast of 2 cups of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran (36 g sugar) with an 8oz glass of unsweetened orange juice (20 g sugar) has already exceeded the 40 g limit by 6 grams. If we throw in a McDonald’s McFlurry at lunch time we are adding 14 tsp or 56 grams of additional sugar! Add 3 tbsp ketchup to your lunch and you have another 12 grams of sugar. Add a couple tablespoons of salad dressing to your lunch and that is about another 4 grams of sugar. Hmmmm……
What kind of carbohydrates should I consume? Most of your carbohydrates should be unrefined complex carbohydrates: vegetables, legumes (soy, lentils and beans) and whole grains (wheat, barley, brown rice, quinoa, oats, etc.). Grain products such as breads, crackers and the like should be made from WHOLE grain flours and therefore the ingredients should use the word whole barley flour or whole-wheat flour. A healthy day would include carbohydrates such as whole oats for breakfast, wild rice with lunch and beans and root vegetables with dinner. This is in contrast to a more typical north American day where one might consume sugar laden cereals for breakfast, white rice and juice with lunch and refined pasta for dinner.
What kinds of sugars should I limit? Limit all refined carbohydrates — basically, anything that’s been milled and stripped of its fiber, healthy oils, vitamins and minerals. All white flour is nutritionally dead. It is used to make most pastries, cereals, breads and pastas, unless you shop carefully or at a health food store. Don’t be fooled by the “enriched white flour” label as only a few of the large number of nutrients removed have been added back, just enough to not make you sick fast enough to notice. Remember, the main reason for refining is to enhance shelf-life and appeal to consumer tastes. Refined products last longer because no self-respecting germ, rodent or fungus will eat it.
Attention Smart Shoppers. Simple carbohydrates are mostly found in fruits, honey, chutneys, jams, pastries, muffins, commercially produced sauces and dressings, processed foods, and sweetened cereals and breads. While two daily servings of fruit are encouraged, avoid fruit juices, canned fruits or products sweetened with concentrated juices. Most importantly READ LABELS and investigate the excellent variety of unsweetened and whole grain breads, crackers, pastas and the like available in health food stores and specialty sections of grocery stores.
What about Natural Sweeteners? I’m often asked if brown sugar or honey and the like are better than just plain sugar. First off, all sweeteners should be limited. Having said that, they are definitely not all created equal. Firstly, some sugars have not been stripped of their natural minerals and vitamins (refined) and therefore will not cause metabolic imbalances to the extent that white sugar does. These are molasses (by far the best choice, especially Blackstrap variety), dehydrated unrefined cane juice or Sucanat (if it doesn’t specify unrefined it is no better than ordinary sugar), unpasteurized honey, maple syrup and muscovado sugar (crystallized molasses). Amasake (popular in Japan), Maltodextrin, Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), Barley malt syrup and brown rice syrup, contain more complex sugars than other sweeteners, and therefore don’t cause dramatic spikes in our blood sugar.
What are the worst sugars? The sugars that reap havoc by spiking our blood sugars are corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, refined cane juice, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey (sad but true) and sucrose (table sugar). Brown sugar is basically refined table sugar with a little molasses added to colour it.
What about fructose? Fructose has become popular for diabetics because it doesn’t elevate blood sugars too much or require insulin for its use; however, as it never exists in nature is such a high concentration, it has a number of health risks such as the raising of bad cholesterol and triglycerides, both related to risk of obesity and heart disease.
Sugar Alcohols like sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol are often used in diabetic products. They are absorbed into the blood slower than refined sugars but are known to cause bloating, gas and diarrhea (especially mannitol) in some people because they are poorly absorbed. Be advised that because they are less sweet than sugar, one may end up adding more and therefore elevating blood sugars to the same extent as ordinary table sugar. In order of decreasing effect on blood sugar are xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol.