Not So Sweet: Cutting Back Sugar Consumption
I love sugar, in all its forms. I never skip dessert. I start my day with a breakfast cupcake, known to most as a muffin, and a nice big coffee loaded with cream and sugar. I confess that I am writing this while drinking said coffee and eating a delectable double danish (for the record, a double danish is a figure 8 made of pastry, each circle with a different filling).
The generally agreed upon recommended daily added sugar intake, according to the American Heart Association, is less 6 teaspoons for women, less than 3-6 teaspoons for children, and less than 9 teaspoons for men. My personal added sugar intake falls somewhere far, far outside of the recommendation. I did the math, and it’s around 84 grams, or 21 teaspoons. That’s right in line with the typical American intake of 22 teaspoons per day. I’m pretty certain this is an area in which I could stand to improve, so I’m committed to cutting back, but I don’t anticipate it being easy.
This is a big topic, and one we’ll come back to as I progress along this Rocky Road-less road, so for today I’m going to lay out the differences between added and naturally occurring sugars, and the consequences of overconsumption.
Added sugar v. naturally occurring sugar
Sugar is not the enemy, and all sugars are not equal. In fact, we need sugar to sustain life. Our bodies naturally produce this important sugar, called glucose, by breaking down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (NIH). So while we definitely don’t need to eat spoonfuls of the stuff (sorry, Mary Poppins), we can’t really avoid it in the form of naturally occurring sugars. These sugars can be found in fruits, vegetables, and milk and they come as part of an awesome package deal that includes essential vitamins, nutrients, and dietary fibers. The dietary fiber slows the absorption of the sugar, making it almost impossible for a person to consume too much in this manner.
Added sugar is a different thing. We use it for flavoring, browning, and tenderness in foods, and as a preservative. Because there’s so much more of it and typically little or no fiber to slow it down, it gets absorbed quickly and hangs out in the liver, which can lead to big issues down the road.
Added sugar is very sneaky and has many aliases, laid out in the infographic from Sugarwise. White sugar, or table sugar, is the most common of these, and the one that I certainly consume the most of. The other caloric sweeteners like honey, maple syup, and molassess do come with some benefits, which we’ll explore in forthcoming entries.
Why should you cut back on added sugar?
Admittedly, I am not an expert in the subject of sugar (merely a fan of the sweet stuff), so for information, I turned to SugarScience, a great resource that takes the complex research behind added sugar and turns it into easily digestible bites. Most people know that too much added sugar in the short term can make you feel wired until the inevitable dramatic crash, contribute to tooth decay, and wreak havoc on your skin. The long-term consequences of a diet high in added sugar are also quite serious. Overconsumption can contribute to chronic diseases that include heart disease, diabetes, and fatty liver disease. SugarScience is currently researching the role that overconsumption of sugar plays in Alzheimer’s, aging, and some cancers.
There are rumblings of a connection between sugar consumption and autoimmune disorders, and many credit the elimination of sugar from their diets as life-changing. For example, take Sarah Wilson, who wrote an excellent piece that cites quitting sugar as an instrumental component of healing from Hashimoto’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. The Arthritis Foundation advises that sugar may contribute to inflammation, an ever-present characteristic of autoimmune disorders.
I have been content to manage my own illness with conventional medications, but as I begin to bump up against the limitations of those medications (for there are few I haven’t tried), I also begin to see the importance of approaching health in a more holistic way, including the choices I make about food. In an effort to live my life the way I wanted, by eating what I wanted, I may have put limitations on the amount of healing my body is able to experience. I think it’s time to change that.
I will not be quitting sugar cold turkey. That was probably obvious to most readers once you reached “double danish”. I plan to begin by reducing my white sugar intake (like maybe I don’t absolutely need two packets in my coffee), making substitutions where possible by exploring other types of sweeteners that bring their own benefits, and modifying my meals to include more fruit to help satisfy my sweet tooth.
Do you monitor your sugar intake, and do you have any great recipes you can point me to? A girl needs some sweet sugarless snacks.
Please keep in mind, I am not a doctor, nor a research scientist, nor am I even particularly good at science. I have done my best to research and interpret correctly, but please take my words here with a fine grain of sugar, and as always, talk to your doctor for any medical advice.