One of the biggest health concerns of the last century has been obesity. Studies indicate that the number of obese people, primarily in first world nations, is constantly on the rise, and more and more serious illnesses are being linked with weight gain. Medical professionals are looking for new ways to reach out to the public and increase awareness of this epidemic, and educate on healthy and unhealthy dietary habits. The average modern diet is considered to be unhealthy due to the presence of too many fatty foods and, more importantly, too much sugar. In fact, the sugar content consumed by the average person on a daily basis is far greater today than it was in the past. This can have a severely adverse effect on our health.
Why Is Sugar Bad?
Unfortunately, the worldwide daily average of sugar consumption has increased by almost 50% from 30 years ago and it is still on the rise (1). The current world average is about 70 grams of sugar (the equivalent of 17 teaspoons) compared to 48 grams three decades ago. Of course, this increase is not distributed evenly. In countries such as the USA the average can reach as high as 40 teaspoons, while countries such as China are at the opposite end of the spectrum with 7 teaspoons.
The worst sugars are added sugars, meaning sugars that has been added to other products in order to enhance their flavor and make them sweeter. This contrasts with sugar which is found naturally in products such as dairy and fruits. Added sugar is very rich in calories without being rich in nutrients. This means that a person with a sugar-rich diet will do one of two things. Either they keep their calorie intake low, meaning that they are cutting back on more nutritionally dense foods, or they add the sugar content on top of their regular diet, contributing to a high calorie intake, weight gain and other problems. Neither result is positive. It is now known that sugar is a cause of obesity, and most of the research suggests that it is in fact the leading cause.
Of course, obesity is not the only reason why too much sugar is unhealthy. Medical conditions such as diabetes are also linked to sugar consumption, although not exactly in the way that most people think. The American Diabetes Association stresses that the idea that eating too much sugar will cause diabetes is a myth (2). First of all, there are two kinds of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes is mostly determined by genetic factors while type 2 diabetes can be brought on by certain lifestyle factors such as being overweight. Therefore, sugar can lead to diabetes indirectly since it is a main cause of weight gain, and overweight people are more at risk of developing diabetes than others. At the same time, the American Diabetes Association stresses that there is a link between type 2 diabetes and the consumption of sugary beverages since they lack nutrients, are very high in calories and offer no sensation of satiety which only encourages people to eat more.
Eating too much sugar can also lead to imbalances in your digestive and immune systems. This is because consuming large amounts of sugar over the long term can disrupt the delicate balance of your gut flora. A high sugar diet, when combined with other factors like antibiotic use, can allow pathogenic organisms like Candida albicans to flourish in your intestines.(3) This affects your ability to absorb nutrients, fight off other pathogens, and maintain a regular and healthy digestive system.
Where Is It Coming From?
The latest report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) points out that the average American eats 156 pounds of added sugar per year (4). If this sounds too incredible to believe, it should be pointed out that only around 30 pounds of it is consumed as actual sugar, while the rest comes from the food we eat. We have certain preconceived notions about what kinds of foods are loaded with sugar: candy, cakes, junk food, sodas etc. However, there is a large number of other foods which are also loaded with a high sugar content, yet are not perceived by the general public as being so.
The reason for this is that sugar is often disguised under some other name. Few products actually use the standard white granulated sugar which is derived from sugar cane. However, other ingredients such as fructose, corn syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, agave, molasses, turbinado, rice syrup and high fructose corn sweetener (just to name a few) are also forms of sugar. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), for example, is a common form of sugar which has seen a significant increase in usage over the last few years. This means that foods which are not necessarily thought of as sugar-rich (such as peanut butter, ketchup, crackers, canned vegetables and yoghurt) actually have a high sugar content. “Low-fat” products are especially guilty of this. Many of them have roughly the same calories as their “normal fat” counterparts because they contain a higher content of sugar in order to make up for the lack of tasty fat.
How to Eat Less
People looking to cut back on their daily sugar consumption can start with the biggest sources. For example, the same USDA report shows that about 10% of the total added sugar consumed in a year by the average American comes from sweetened fruit drinks. Sweet treats such as candies and cakes account for approximately 5% each while sugary breakfast cereal amounts to 4%. Therefore, people looking to cut back on their total sugar consumption should target the foods that they already knew were rich in added sugar.
It should also be noted that using sweeteners is not generally a completely safe alternative. Most of them might indeed contain fewer calories, but they still trigger the same reaction in the body as if regular sugar was being consumed. Moreover, many artificial sweeteners have received a lot of bad press for using processed chemicals like aspartame that might be worse than the actual sugar.
(1) CSFB, “Sugar Consumption At A Crossroads”, PDF document.
(2) American Diabetes Association, “Diabetes Myths”, http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/myths/.
(3) The Candida Diet, “Why Does Candida Really Need Sugar?”, http://www.thecandidadiet.com/why-does-candida-need-sugar/.
(4) USDA, “Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005”, http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib-economic-information-bulletin/eib33.aspx#.Uwd0pc55tGQ.