What you need to know about sugar, salt, fat, and gluten!
Confused about conflicting nutrition news on sugar, salt, fat, and gluten?
CR’s experts help you separate food fact from fiction and give you simple strategies that will help you make better choices and eat healthier and still let you love every bite.
Sugar: The Gateway to Weight Gain
PHOTO: SAM KAPLAN
In the last year, we’ve learned of a food fraud that may have been perpetrated on the American public. A report published in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that in the 1960s, scientific research—secretly bankrolled by the sugar industry—was released that downplayed the health effects of a sugar-laden diet and instead called out “saturated fat” as the real dietary demon responsible for heart disease. And media outlets, food manufacturers, and ordinary citizens ate it up.
That bit of nutritional subterfuge may have been at least partly responsible for 50 years of misleading public health advice. And the resulting flood of packaged foods that were low in fat but high in sugars and refined grains may have contributed to the current epidemic of obesity and its related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, in the U.S.
Today, the typical American diet is packed with huge amounts of added sugars: We’re talking those used as ingredients in many packaged foods—not the ones naturally found in foods such as fruit and milk. According to the most recent data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Americans eat about 17 teaspoons (73 grams) of added sugars per day, on average, with teenagers consuming the most, about 20 teaspoons (82 grams). That’s significantly more than the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 9 (or fewer) teaspoons (36 grams) a day for men and 6 teaspoons (24 grams) for women and children. Children under the age of 2 should consume no added sugars at all, the AHA advises.
One thing there’s little doubt about now: Added sugars are bad for you. “It’s settled science that a high intake of sugary drinks, the No. 1 source of added sugars in the American diet, is associated with an increased risk of overweight and obesity—conditions that are directly linked to the development of type 2 diabetes,” says Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont. A 2015 study of more than 1,700 adults found that the odds of being overweight or obese were 54 percent greater among individuals with the highest intake of sugars compared with those with the lowest intake.
According to David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, sugar has a specific metabolic effect on your body that contributes to weight gain. Most sugars are a combination of fructose and glucose. “Too much glucose raises blood sugar and insulin. And because insulin is a potent fat-storage hormone, too much insulin is linked to weight gain.” What’s more, Ludwig adds, “an overload of fructose goes straight to the liver, overwhelming its ability to process it.” That excess may raise the risk of fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes.
And even if your sweet tooth hasn’t made you gain weight, it may still be putting you at increased risk of heart disease. A 2014 analysis of 40 studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a higher sugar intake also meant higher levels of total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides no matter how much one weighed. Another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who got 17 to 21 percent of their calories from added sugars had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease than those who got 8 percent or less.
Perhaps the trickiest thing about cutting back on added sugars is that you can’t always rely on food labels to guide you. The Food and Drug Administration’s plan for new food labels that call out these worrisome sugars has been postponed. Some food manufacturers, such as Campbell’s and Mars, are using the new labels on at least some of their products anyway, but otherwise, consumers have to fend for themselves.
How to Reduce Sugar Intake• Swap sugar-sweetened sodas, bottled ice teas, and sports drinks for seltzer with a splash of no-sugar-added juice; reduce portion sizes of desserts and other sweets if you can’t eliminate them altogether.
• Learn all of the sugar synonyms on ingredients labels. That will give you a rough idea of how much “added sugars” are present. Agave syrup, cane sugar or juice, coconut sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, and almost anything that ends in “-ose” (such as fructose) are all added sugars. Some of these sugars may sound healthier, but “once it’s in your bloodstream, it has the same metabolic effect,” Johnson says.
• Scan for hidden sugars in foods such as bread, granola, pasta sauce, frozen dinners, and salad dressings. About three-quarters of packaged foods on store shelves contain added sugars, and a few grams here and there can easily add up to more per day than you should be consuming.
• Add your own sugar. Buy unsweetened versions of foods like cereal, oatmeal, and yogurt, and sweeten them with a little honey or sugar yourself if you need to.—Sally Wadyka
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