Monday
Nov292010

The Short and Sweet of it?

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.

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Reader Comments (16)

This is terrific stuff! I can hardly wait to hear about diet soda. Pepsi bores me, but Diet Coke gets my blood pumping!

December 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor Woods

I read the book "Sugar Blues" many years ago and gave up soft drinks then...but still have quite a sweet tooth. I am looking forward to your blog. I am hoping you will address sweeteners such as Stevia. I have noticed that some Stevia products have other things added to them, I guess to make them more palatable. I have been using the 100% pure stevia in my lemonade and herbal teas.

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNancy O

does splenda count as sugar intake? i need my caffiene either from coffee or tea. tea i can drink with or without sugar, but coffee is totally another matter. please help.

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterolga

Great post. I found your blog through your daughter's blog. I'm wondering about withdrawals. I know that caffeine can pose a problem; is it true that you can have withdrawals from sugar too? Headaches are the bane of my existence, so I'm sensitive to the withdrawal thing. Does it happen to everyone? I am more headache free when I'm not using sugar as much, so that's a plus in the other direction. :D

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissaPete

This is fantastic- I can't wait to read your posts throughout the year.

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa of In Pencil

Great post. Last April I removed all sugar and starches from my diet. The only sugars I allowed myself was organic fruits like berries and apples (and an occasional orange). After the first couple of weeks of dealing with the detoxing, I was amazed at how much better I felt.

I will be sharing your blog with whoever will listen. Keep up the great work. I've added you to my reader and look forward to hearing more of your findings.

Kristy

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristy

Love the new blog! Yeah Brooke's Dad and family!

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie Pazoo

By chance I have stumbled onto your blog. And what a find! Now bookmarked as a favourite, I will be reading your blog throughout the year. Thank-you for sharing your wisdom and motivating me to be more health conscience.

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTash

Thanks Tash. We'll make 2011 a year of better nutrition and health. We should have a party at the end of the year and share notes. Skip

January 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Question: I have apple juice in my fridge that says, "no added sugar" on the front, but then says it has 28g of sugar per serving. Is that just natural sugar from the juice? That seems like quite a bit of sugar. I want to eat healthier, but it can be quite confusing.

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Jen, good question. I have some in my refrigerator also and it makes a nice break from good old water. I'm fine with the natural sugar because I drink it moderately. We have a post planned on healthy drinks for when we crave a little variety. Apple juice, grape juice, tomato juice, I like all the healthy juices. And I love the smoothies in the summer months. Best, Skip

January 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I'm super excited about this blog!!! I had already made the change from the typically sugary drinks like Coke (and I'm from ATL so that's saying something!). I've moved for now to the, like, Izzie drinks and Orange San Pelligrino - carbonated waters and juice. I know they still have sugar, but in a more pure form (I should double check) - or making my own at home with club soda/soda water and pomegranate juice or just lemon and lime juice. I found I really missed the carbonation and the fizzy water helped me feel like I wasn't giving anything up.

Also, because I have toddlers and they are often exposed to juices at restaurants and school snacks, etc. I only allow those V8 Fusion juices in my house for them (there is also a version that includes green tea). I think they taste fabulous and each serving has a full serving of fruit and full serving of veggies. I don't let them drink tons of it, but hope I'm right that this is a pretty good option for their juice craving regarding the sugar. It does all get confusing . . .

Anywho, really excited about this blog and the reasoning behind each of the weekly changes you'll post!!

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Fisher

Another sugar related comment/question: I read somewhere that the body actually needs the nutrients found in raw sugar to break the sugar down in your body. If you eat the processed stuff that has removed those nutrients then your body will pull the nutrients from the stores in your body, actually from your bones. Obviously this weakens them. Understanding that chemistry really helped me to think about sugar in a different way and be less inclined to accept processed sugars in my food.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Fisher

Hi Skip,

After reading several posts about sugar on your blog, I've paid more attention to the sugar quantities of all the things I buy at the store. Astounding how much sugar I've been consuming!!! :( Thank you for opening my eyes on this issue. I've done great so far buying healthier versions of everything except for yogurt. Yogurt is so confusing to me. How many grams of sugar in yogurt is acceptable? I was buying Wallabuy yogurt until I noticed that each serving had 20+ grams of sugar. That seems a tad bit much. Their plain yogurt is 9 grams. Still, I don't know what seems reasonable. Any insight would be great.

Thanks, Lori

May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLori

Lori, you raise a good issue with yogurt, a food with an undeserved reputation for healthiness. A 6 oz. serving of yogurt typically has 20-28 grams of sugar, or 5-7 teaspoons of sugar. That's the whole daily limit per the AHA recommendation of 6 tsp. daily for women.

I picked up some siggi's Icelandic skyr-style yogurt and it has just 9 grams sugar but more milk protein. I must admit that it is an acquired taste, and a little expensive.

What we need is a low-sugar tasty yogurt treat that we could add fruit to sweeten. Perhaps our readers can make a suggestion. Best..

May 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I just heard this today and it made me think. marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/09/22/pm-a-tax-on-soda-commentary/ Tobacco seems so obvious. I wonder if a knowledge tax or push against companies who promote sugar to extremes would have an effect if something like this were taken seriously.

Thank you for your posts (generally.) I support your stand and I get a lot of insights on how to better live with wisdom.

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

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