With obesity on the rise and high rates of type 2 diabetes, more people are attempting to give up sugar. It isn’t easy. Although scientific opinion is far from unanimous, there is tantalizing evidence that sugar can be as neurologically rewarding as some addictive drugs, helping to explain why it’s so hard to kick the habit.
Even figuring out how much sugar you eat is tricky. As Gary Taubes points out in his book, The Case Against Sugar, the sweet stuff appears in everything from breakfast cereals to tobacco. And sugar can evade even careful label-readers, masquerading as glucose, fruit juice concentrate, high fructose syrup and sucrose.
75 Pounds of Sugar Per Year
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, average consumption of added sugars amounts to about 75 pounds of sugar per person per year.
Taubes find the widespread idea of sugar as simply “empty calories” naïve. Instead, he sees sugar as having specific and possibly harmful effects in the human body.
“Different carbohydrates, like glucose and fructose, are metabolized differently,” he says, “leading to different hormonal and physiological responses. Fat accumulation and metabolism are influenced profoundly by these hormones.”
“People act as though all that matters is the dose, but when you talk about sugar like any other drug you have a paradigm shift,” says Taubes. “Why does Zoloft [an antidepressant] do something different than Lipitor [used to lower cholesterol]? No matter what dose we give a patient of Lipitor, it’s never going to be an antidepressant.
“We keep talking about what’s the right dose of sugar rather than how it works in the body,” Taubes says. “We need to look at it differently.”
Sugars for Fats: A Poor Tradeoff
“I think we’re just starting to understand the short- and long-term problems that increased sugar intake can cause to the human body,” says Dr. David Becker, associate director of the preventive and integrative heart health program at the Temple Heart and Vascular Institute in Philadelphia. “From the heart point of view, sugar raises [unhealty] triglycerides, lowers [healthy] HDL and causes something called metabolic syndrome, a condition where the body can’t process things normally. As we get older, this is as powerful a risk factor as high cholesterol, which causes an increased risk of hypertension and hyperlipidemia and sets the body up to have [a heart attack] over time.””
The dilemma is that “we traded one problem for another,” says Becker. Over the years, in giving up cholesterol, people turned to processed foods that were low in saturated fat but high in sugar.
“But because cholesterol is bad, that doesn’t mean sugar is good. They’re both bad for you,” Becker says.
So what should people eat?
Becker suggests the Mediterranean diet — which is high in healthy fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates such as legumes or whole grains — as one option.
“Diets have been operating between polar extremes,” says Becker. “On one end ,there is the Ornish plan, which cuts fats below 10 percent, which means people eat more junk carbs such as white breads, pasta and sugar, to make up for missing calories. Then there is the Atkins diet, which is very high in saturated fat. I believe we need some balance.”
‘Stepping Down’ From Sugar
“You can definitely live without sugar,” says Susan Renda, assistant professor of community and public health at Johns Hopkins Medical School. “Mainly, it’s a source of quick energy that rapidly raises blood sugar. If you’re running a marathon, you might need that burst of energy, but in most cases you don’t.”
For those who can’t go cold turkey, Renda advises a “step-down” approach.
“First, be aware of the foods you’re eating. Sugar is everywhere, even in bread, where high fructose corn syrup can be used to help the yeast grow. People aren’t aware of how much sugar they consume.”
Then, she recommends substitutions.
“Pick a processed or refined carbohydrate and substitute a food of the earth, something closer to its natural state,” says Renda. “If you eat ice cream every night, consider substituting a handful of grapes or a few nuts three nights a week.”
Her third step is to work hard to enjoy whatever food you select.
“We tend to eat things we like very quickly. Choose a corner of a bar of dark chocolate — which is healthier than milk chocolate — and eat it very, very slowly,” says Renda.
Skip the Soda
Becker finds that the simplest tip for many people is to watch what you drink.
“Sugary sodas are the most harmful — you can have 10 teaspoons of sugar in a single can. And fruit juices aren’t much better,” he says. “Get back to water, and if you must, put a tiny bit of fruit juice in it. It’s something that cuts down the calories and makes a huge difference.”
Despite Becker’s best advice, he admits that not many of his patients abandon sugar completely.
“We need a lot of educating,” he says. “People like things that taste good. But this is a condition that can be cured. Try a sugar purge for a couple of weeks — people say that within two or three weeks they lose the taste for sugar really quickly.”
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