Getting Smarter About Sugar
150 pounds! That's how much sugar the average American consumes each year according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The direct result of this is that the average American weighs more than they should. 69% of adults are overweight or obese, while that number is 32% for children. These extra pounds are risk factors for just about everything that is killing Americans - heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. With such an apparent link between sugar, poor diet, and obesity, we need to start asking ourselves how we can live better with sugar.
The term "sugar" is most appropriately applied to the simplest form of a carbohydrate. "Carbs" are one of the nutritional building blocks along with proteins and fats. Simple carbohydrates are found in the form of glucose (basic sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), sucrose (cane sugar), or lactose (milk sugar). Carbs are classified as more complex when they link together in large chains, or starches. Bread and potatoes are example sources of more complex carbohydrates. Everything mentioned thus far is technically a sugar, but we typically think of sugar as table or cane sugar, along with high fructose corn syrup.
Do We Need Sugar?
Carbohydrates are an essential part of our metabolism. Glucose is a basic currency in many metabolic processes necessary for functioning. How we get this glucose, however, can vary.
Eating complex carbohydrates yields glucose through digestion and the breaking down of long chains of sugar. An unconscious patient in the hospital may get glucose directly into the blood stream via an IV, and a soft drink filled with sucrose is digested and simply converted to glucose. It seems that carbs as "sugar" is a nearly universal part of the American diet. Of course we do not need these forms of sugar, but it's hard to get away from them without deliberate efforts. Even without eating sweet foods, sugar is consumed as an additive to make foods taste better.
Why Do We Eat So Much Sugar?
As I contemplate the question "Why do we eat so much sugar?," the the most obvious answer is "Because it tastes good!" Not only that, but we're in a position where sweet, sugary things are plentiful. Sugar enhances taste, so sugar enhances sales.
Beyond that, many of us become habitually dependent on sugar. Those simple carbohydrates sends our blood sugar soaring quickly with a burst of energy. The body reacts slowly to metabolize the sugar and often overshoots the mark, sending the blood sugar crashing back down. This back and forth fluctuation causes us to crave that increase over and over. Many experts compare sugar addiction to other drugs like nicotine or caffeine. After a while, chasing the high becomes the status quo.
Low Fat = High Carb
Part of this carb frenzy has come out of the low-fat trends. It's true that gram for gram, fat has more calories than carbohydrates. And remember that food pyramid with it's broad base of carbs and the tiny peak of fat? Enter the marketing genius of "low-fat" sweets and other foods. While the foods were lower in fat content, the taste was maintained by enhancing the simple carb content. These foods pushed the rise and fall of blood sugar, enforcing that drive just like other sugary foods.
Are Sugar-Free Sweeteners Better?
Not all sweets are full of carbs and raise blood sugar levels. Consider NutraSweet, Stevia, and Saccharin, for instance. These sweet substances have virtually no calories and satisfy the sweet craving. The problem is that, with no calories, there is no nutritional content, leaving the body starved. So, the craving soon needs to be filled again, likely with something sweet. In the absence of nutrition (ideally protein with some fat and more complex carbohydrates), the body goes looking for nutrition and to again fill that sweet fix. So, when these artificial sweeteners are unaccompanied by proper nutrition, they increase the drive for carbs.
I really don't think it's fair (or plausible) for America to crush it's sweet tooth. We love our sweets, but as my mom always said, "Dessert is a treat, not an expectation." When we eat sugar in moderation, it enhances our enjoyment and appreciation of those delectable sweets. In order to keep your intake low, watch labels for hidden sugars, and work on avoiding high-fructose corn syrup, probably the most dangerous sugar. If you're going to eat a zero-calorie sweetener, make sure you are getting some healthy nutrition with it to satisfy your body. Finally, if you do eat sugar, burn those extra calories with physical activity.
US Department of Agriculture: http://www.usda.gov/
Food and Research Action Center: http://www.frac.org/