You've heard of a beer belly. Get ready to hear about a sugar belly. Americans are eating more sugar than any animal has ever eaten in the history of the planet. Research is coming out almost daily showing that our sugar glut is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, even liver problems. Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness helped us sort out how much is too much and where to spot the worst sweet offenders.
What foods are the worst culprits?
Bottled sweetened beverages lead the troops as being the primary source of added sugar, averaging about 10 teaspoons per 12-ounce serving. But, it doesn't even begin to stop there. A whole bunch of sugar in American diets comes from processed foods that aren't even sweet, from canned chili, frozen turkey entrees, pizza, peanut butter, and bread to hot dogs, spaghetti sauce, baked beans, canned soups, and salad dressings. For example,
What about the type of sugar. Does that make a difference?
Yes. Clearly, too many calories from anything, be it sugary beverages, beer, ice cream, or pizza, will cause weight gain. But, there is some evidence that calories from fructose, especially high-fructose corn syrup used in many processed foods, including beverages, may be more likely than other calories to aim for your waist. Deep belly fat is called "visceral" fat and it is most linked to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and what is called the "metabolic syndrome." Fructose appears to raise levels of liver and muscle fat, and increase the risk for insulin resistance, which is a stepping stone to diabetes. In one study, liver and muscle fat doubled in those people who drank the most fructose-sweetened beverages. This risk is seen in women, men, seniors and teenagers. At this point, it appears that for every 12 ounce can or bottle of a sugary beverage you consume, you raise your risk for diabetes by 15% to 22%. Along with the weight gain, added sugar also increases blood triglycerides and cholesterol and lowers the good cholesterol, called HDLs.
Word of caution here. High fructose corn syrup is not the only offender. Keep in mind, table sugar is half fructose. Agave is even worse. It is 88% fructose. We need to cut back on all added sugars, starting with the fructose-sweetened beverages.
How much is too much added sugar?
In 2009, the American Heart Association suggested a limit of no more than 100 calories a day for women and no more than 150 calories a day for men. Said a different way, that is about 6 1/2 teaspoons of sugar for a woman and 9 1/2 teaspoons a day for a man. This goal is not just to cut back on waist-expanding sugar, but also is about the healthy foods that are replaced by that sugar. Unless you are an avid, vigorous exerciser, you don't have a lot of wiggle room calorie-wise for gobbling bunches of processed, sugary foods. 90% of Americans fail to meet minimum standards for green and orange vegetables. Obviously, too much sugar is getting in the way of taking good care of ourselves.
When reading labels, how can we tell natural sugars from added sugars?
You can't. At least not from the nutrition panel on a food label as it stands now, since companies are required to only provide the total sugar content, not where the sugar came from. So, you must be a sleuth and go to the next best thing - the ingredient list. Even then, sugar comes disguised under a slew of aliases, including:
agave evaporated cane syrup organic cane sugar
brown sugar fructose invert sugar raw sugar
corn sweetener fruit juice concentrates maltose rice syrup
corn syrup glucose malt syrup sucrose
crystalline fructose high-fructose corn syrup molasses sugar
dextrose honey maltodextrin syrup
The bottom line is: Avoid any processed food that has 1) sugar listed in the first 3 ingredients OR has 2) multiple sugars scattered throughout the ingredient list. Be especially vigilant about high-fructose corn syrup in beverages. In fact, limit all sweetened beverages to no more than 12 ounces a week.