Over the last ten thousand years, we have developed a natural affinity for sugar, a useful source of energy for ancient tribes that often faced famine. The brain rewards us for eating sugar with a blast of chemicals that make sweets extremely satisfying. The problem is, we no longer endure famines. So we don’t need sugar and our brain does not have a shut-off switch to help us just say no to sugar.
Why is this a problem? A recent research study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) entitled Americans eat far too much sugar. Indeed, sugar consumption is very high in the United States. Between 2005 and 2010, 71.4% of adults in the U.S. got 10% or more of their calories from added sugar and 10% of people consumed more than 25% of calories from sugar (that would be 1/2 cup or 25 teaspoons of sugar). WOW, that is a lot of sugar! The most common sources of added sugar in the American adult diet included sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, and candy.
“People who eat the most sugar, more than double their risk for death.”
The bottom line is that eating too much sugar kills.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are the worst offenders. They are the single largest source of added sugar in our diets, accounting for 37.1% of all added sugar we consume nationally. (One can of regular soda contains about 35 grams -more than 8 teaspoons of sugar.) The research study showed regular consumption of sodas (say drinking just one 12-ounce can a day) increases the risk of death from a heart attack or other cardiovascular event by almost one-third. This increase was independent of the total calories a person ate or other co-factors.
While it was once thought that the over-consumption of sugar was a marker for obesity which could eventually lead to cardiovascular disease, this new research shows that excessive sugar intake alone is a cause for cardiovascular disease as well as type 2 diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, and even dementia.
How can we address this problem? First, let’s broaden our understanding of the word “sugar.” I propose that we redefine sugar as any carb that causes a spike (rather than a gradual rise) in blood sugar levels, so this includes anything made with flour. These bad carbs are found in bread, white rice, flour tortillas, pasta as well as sports drinks, processed fruit juices and fruit drinks, table sugar, cookies and chips, and sodas.
What about whole grain flour? Whole grain flour, often thought of as a healthy food option, also causes a spike in blood sugar levels just like white flour, so if you are struggling to lose weight and/or have elevated blood sugar levels, you should avoid all products made with flour.
From this new study, it is clear that we should no longer think of sugary snacks and drinks as merely “empty calories” that lead to obesity. As one expert, Laura A. Schmidt, explained in a commentary to this new research, “Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick.” I would go a big step further and say, “Eating too much sugar can kill you.”
If you have a sweet tooth, then at least focus on adding foods that are good for you. Splurge on dark (70% cocoa mass) chocolate. Buy your favorite fruit and eat it whole or with plain Greek yogurt, or in a smoothie. For a quick snack, try a serving of dark chocolate, nuts, and/or fruit. The key is to enjoy food. So appreciate the fragrance of the food, taste it, and savor it. Relish each bite, and review the mindful eating section on pages 274 to 276 in The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up.
The good news is that the Heart Tune-Up program will show you how to tune up your heart, circulation, energy, waistline, and sex life, and you still get to eat the delicious food you love.
I wish you the best of health!
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS