Sugar and Health: The Bad, The Ugly, and How to Avoid It
We talk a lot about sugar at Eat Drink Better. That sweet, white powder is delicious, but it’s also at least partially responsible for public health problems from obesity to diabetes to heart disease. Singular sugar facts don’t always paint the complete picture. Let’s take a broader look at sugar and health along with how you can cut back on the sweet stuff.
A Note About Sugar
Before we get started with the research, I wanted to mention that I am not saying a little sugar in your morning coffee or the occasional cookie is going to kill you. I’m a big believer in moderation.
The problem with sugar – like with anything else – comes in when we overdo it. And that’s easy to do! Sugar is hidden in so many foods. Cookies and other desserts obviously contain sugar, but because high fructose corn syrup is so cheap (thanks, crop subsidies!), food producers use it as a filler in everything from soups and breads to salad dressings. Most packaged food is overly sweetened, because it’s inexpensive to do so, and because sugar acts as a preservative.
When I am talking about sugar in the article below, I mean sugar in all its forms: table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and fruit juice. Even unsweetened fruit juice.
High fructose corn syrup is one type of sugar that takes a lot of flack, and I think a lot of it is deserved. One of the biggest problems with HFCS is that it’s so cheap. Food companies use it as an inexpensive additive to make food taste better and last longer on the shelf. HFCS is responsible for the oversweetening of our diet, and because sugars have addictive properties, the more we eat the more we crave.
Sugar and Your Heart
The piece that prompted me to take a larger look at sugar and health was Jennifer Kaplan’s Is Sugar Killing You? That article looked at a recent study showing that the more sugar you eat, the more likely you are to die from cardiovascular disease.
That wasn’t the first study linking sugar consumption with cardiovascular disease. What this new study did was strengthen that link by showing that sugar’s not just correlated with poor heart health but actually increases your risk of death.
Sugar and Type 2 Diabetes
It’s pretty common knowledge that sugar is a major culprit in the rise of type 2 diabetes. What you may not think about is how the sources of sugar in your diet might be impacting your health.
It turns out that sugary drinks in particular have a strong link to type 2 diabetes. This may be because when we drink our calories, we don’t feel as satisfied as when we eat them. Sugary drinks like soda and fruit juice add calories to our diet without making us feel as full. Satiety is key to controlling our appetite, and sugar-laden drinks just don’t fulfill that requirement.
Sugar and Obesity
This is another no-brainer that bears repeating. Sugar is a huge factor in our obesity epidemic. The extra, empty calories are definitely part of the problem, but it goes deeper than that. The sugar-obesity link begins at the metabolic level. Because of how our bodies metabolize sugar, the more sugar we eat, the more food our bodies think we need. It’s a dangerous cycle, and you can read more about how sugar impacts our metabolism and our appetites here.
Eating Less Sugar: Resources
OK, so that’s the bad news, and I know there’s a lot of it. You may be feeling hopeless about your own sugar consumption at this. But wait! We can take control of the sugar in our diets. Here are some tips and resources to help!
- If you want to try quitting the white stuff all together, check out this great piece on learning to live without sugar.
- Want to wean yourself off of sugary drinks? Try this list of drinks that are low in sugar to get you started. It’s also a good idea to skip the fruit juice in favor of whole fruit. Fruit has sugar, but it also has lots of healthy fiber, which helps your body metabolize that fructose.
- Avoid processed foods. Wherever possible, buy whole foods and cook from scratch. I know that this isn’t always an option, but when you can, this is your best option for avoiding sugars.
- Spotting hidden sugars is a big part of cutting back. You’ll need to do some careful label-reading. The trouble is that sugar goes by many names. Here’s a list of sugars that you might see on food labels.