Nice guy that I am, I’ll give you the answer right at the start of this post. If you want to look better and live longer . . . eat less sugar. Sugar, whether sucrose (table sugar), high fructose corn syrup, or in some other form, is ubiquitous in our food environment. So where to start? Healthy Change #1—the first of 52 small steps that could make a big change in your health—takes a bead on our biggest source of dietary sugar: soda drinks.
To tell you how I got to this conclusion, here is a brief history. Sugar, beginning in the Middle Ages, was precious—the food of kings. The Industrial Revolution changed this, making sugar cheap and plentiful. Our modern diet contains an amazing amount of sugar. The 2000 USDA Factbook puts our total sugar supply at a shocking 152 pounds per person per year. After subtracting for waste, this translates to 30 teaspoons each day, over 20% of our calories. We actually don’t add this much, most of the sugar we consume is added at a factory, which makes sugar our #1 food additive. From a clinical standpoint, such a high intake of sugar is an uncontrolled food experiment on us guinea pigs—what happens when a nation get 20% of it’s calories from sugar?
Our sugar intake is not a new problem. In 1925 the noted English scientist R. H. A. Plimmer warned: “The Americans, with their love of candy, are the largest sugar eaters in the world. Incidentally, cancer and diabetes, two scourges of civilization, have increased proportionally to the sugar consumption.” Plimmer’s genius was to make the connection between sugar and chronic diseases. His failing was an excess of optimism about our ability to change: “ . . . as we now realize our predicament it should not be a difficult matter to rectify our mistakes.” Nothing was rectified; our sugar intake grew and grew all through the 20th century.
In 1972 another English scientist, John Yudkin, made shockwaves with his book, Pure, White and Deadly, which linked sugar consumption with heart disease. In America we (incorrectly, it now appears) had linked coronary heart disease to cholesterol and saturated fat. So Yudkin’s work was seen as politically incorrect and ignored.
Fortunately, a possible cause of a disaster like coronary heart disease cannot be ignored forever. In 2007 Gary Taubes published a fascinating critique of our sugar intake, based on seven years of research, titled Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes’ carefully documented conclusion links our high consumption of sugar to the rise of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers. You can throw in dementia and accelerated aging also. I highly recommend Taubes’ book, though it’s strong emphasis on science makes for heavy reading. For an easier-to-read but no less macabre book, try Suicide by Sugar. The shared message of these books: If you depend on sugar to make life sweet, your life will be shorter, perhaps much shorter.
So how much sugar should we eat? There is no recommended daily amount—the body has no need for the simple sugars. (The complex sugars contained in natural foods as carbohydrates, however, do provide needed energy and nutrients.) The USDA, not known for going against the interests of the food industry, calls for reducing our sugar consumption by about two-thirds, to 10 teaspoons daily on a 2000 calorie diet. This approximates the sugar in a can of soda, or a large bowl of breakfast cereal. There does not appear to be any hard science behind the USDA recommendation. The American Heart Association has recommended no more than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) daily for women, and 37 grams (about nine teaspoons) for men.
The AHA sugar limits are a good place to start: 25 grams or 6 tsp. daily for women, 37 grams or 9 tsp. for men. This is a limit we can live with. Beverages like sodas and energy or fruit drinks are a major source of sugar. (Fruit juices may be OK, check the ingredients for added sugars.) Breakfast cereals are also highly sweetened. Candy, bakery goods, and snack foods—heck, nearly all processed foods—are typically loaded with added sugars. Today, let’s start with drinks.
One confession: I enjoy Pepsi Cola and, no surprise, so do my kids. Seeking a workable balance between healthy diet and guilty pleasure, I decided to limit sugared drinks like Pepsi to one per week. After one year, this seems a workable solution. Funny thing—my desire to drink sodas has diminished. Side note: my wife prefers diet drinks, also unhealthy but for different reasons. We’ll get to those in a later blog.
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.