According to the latest figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes around 140 pounds of added sugar (refined sugar, corn sweeteners, honey and edible syrups) each year. “This still equals almost half a cup of sugar per person per day,” says Dr. Nancy Appleton of La Jolla, California. “A teenage boy eats almost twice that.”
Appleton, a nutritionist and author of “Lick The Sugar Habit” (Avery, 1996), says there is plenty of evidence that Americans are addicted to sugar, including the fact that “we drink over 500 soft drinks a year and there are only 365 days per year.”
A growing amount of medical research is pointing to the health consequences of too much added sugar, including the increased risk of Type 2 diabetes in women and, in the area of sugar-sweetened drinks, an increase in overweight children and adults.
“Beverages with added sugar increase the calories you are consuming each day,” says Andrea Sharma, an epidemiologist with the Centers For Disease Control (CDC), Atlanta. “If you’re not burning those calories, that leads to an increase in weight.”
According to Sharma, 40 percent of the added sugar in American diets is coming from sugar-sweetened beverages. A soda with 40 grams of sugar, adds Appleton, is equal to about ten teaspoons of sugar.
Another health concern, says Appleton, is sugar’s affect on the immune system.
“Sugar suppresses the immune system,” she says. “I’ve seen this under a microscope. I’ve given people sugar and watched as their blood sugar goes up. The white blood cells of your immune system get dormant. They no longer can defend you against foreign invaders.”
Not all experts agree on the specific consequences of too much sugar. Nor do even the harshest critics, like Appleton, believe cutting sugar out of your diet is for everyone. She says a healthy person who exercises regularly and eats well can handle as much as two teaspoons of sugar at one time. A person with a chronic disease like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol should have no sugar, she says.
One thing health experts do agree on is that Americans should be more aware of the added sugar they put in their bodies. It’s easy to see how candy bars, cookies, pastries and cakes contribute – but also think about cereals, breads, crackers, yogurt, canned fruit and gourmet coffee drinks. Start checking labels and charts – you’ll be surprised at how much sugar you are actually eating, even if you never actually reach for the sugar bowl.
“They add sugar to the white rice of the sushi in the supermarket,” she says. “Ninety-two percent of the calories for cranberry sauce are from added sugar. More than 60 percent of the calories in ketchup come from the sugar in tomatoes or added sugar.”
Appleton discourages people from going cold turkey when it comes to sugar.
“You’ll go through withdrawal symptoms,” Appleton says. She suggests weaning yourself over three weeks. “Eat half of the sugar you usually do the first week. The second week, just take a bite of whatever sugary foods you can’t resist. The third week, take a bite of the sugary food and spit it out. Instead, drink a glass of water with lemon to fill your stomach.”
In the end, educating yourself about sugar can lead to some sweet results. Once you learn to make balanced choices, you’ll feel less hungry and more in control. Not to mention the pounds you may shed.