When you were a kid you might’ve had a parent or teacher tell you that too much sugar will rot your teeth. Well, the truth is, sugar can do a lot more damage to your body than that. In fact, rotting teeth are actually the least of your worries.
Sugar is a $10 billion business. Americans consume more sugar than ever. According to the American Heart Association, the average person in the US has about 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. That adds up to over 75 pounds a year – that’s about the size of a Labrador Retriever.
When you normally think of sugar in foods you might imagine desserts or sweet food products. But the truth is practically every processed food you purchase has added sugar. That’s everything from spaghetti sauce to salad dressings to loaf bread – heck, even products like turkey and beef jerky have added sugar in them.
Americans get a lot of their sugar from the things they drink. 47% of the sugar we consume is from the beverages we buy. And I’m not just talking about sodas – you’ll find added sugar in teas, sports drinks, juices, and waters – that’s right, WATER!
Bruce Bradley is a former food executive who worked at Pillsbury, Nabisco, and General Mills. According to Bradley, “Sugar is one of the essential, basic ingredients used in 99% of the processed foods out there. It’s something that can drive a lot of taste in the products and a lot of appeal for consumers.”
Back in the 1980s and 1990s many experts blamed health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer on dietary fats. There was a movement to eliminate fat from the things we eat, and companies started taking it out.
Did the disease rate go down after this? The answer is, no. This got doctors, nutritionists, and scientists scrambling for reasons why. The conclusion that many experts arrived at was sugar.
One the most prominent voices against sugar is Dr. Robert Lustig from the University of California, San Francisco. He specializes in neuroendocrinology and childhood obesity. He says, “Everyone thinks that the bad effects of sugar are because sugar has empty calories. What I’m saying is, ‘No, actually there are lots of things that do have empty calories that are not necessarily poisonous.’” That’s right, Lustig calls sugar poisonous.
The problem with sugar starts with its molecular makeup. Sugar is made up of two molecules -- glucose and fructose. When you consume sugar your body splits the molecules up. Glucose gets circulated through your body to your muscles, brain and other parts. The fructose, on the other hand, goes straight to your liver. And it’s in the liver that sugar creates all kinds of trouble.
According to Lustig, “When you metabolize fructose in excess your liver has no choice but to turn that energy into liver fat. And that liver fat causes all of the down stream metabolic diseases.” A variety of illnesses can be connected to added sugar.
According to a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, your risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases along with sugar intake.
An Emory University white paper from 2010 reports that added sugar increases the probability of getting heart disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity connected with excess sugar increases your changes of developing high blood pressure, stroke, gallbladder and liver diseases, osteoarthritis, gynecological problems such as infertility, respiratory problems, sleep apnea, and colon, breast and endometrial cancers.
The fructose in sugar contributes to obesity in its own unique way. According to scientists, too much fructose can shut down the part of your brain that tells you when you’re full. Consequently, this can cause people to overeat, especially kids.
Dr. Lustig says, that “it doesn’t get registered by the brain as you having eaten. So, if you take a kid, and prep him with a soft drink and then let him loose at the fast food restaurant. Does he eat less or does he eat more? Turns out he eats more.”
For this reason, sugar is a major reason for the obesity problem in this country. It’s why more than 70% of Americans are now either obese or overweight, according to the CDC. And why the childhood obesity rate has increased to 20%. To make matters worse sugar is highly addictive.
There are two parts to addiction – abuse and dependence. Abuse involves debilitating problems that come from use. For example, an individual that abuses cocaine might loss his job or get rejected from his family as a consequence. There are , as well. Every thing from type 2 diabetes to heart disease to cancer are negative costs to abusing sugar. Obesity related to excess sugar can cause high blood pressure, stroke, and gallbladder and liver diseases, along with a whole bunch of other things.
Dependence occurs when your body gets physiologically hooked on something. When you take certain substances they target the brain's reward system and flood your system with dopamine. Once this happens you feel pleasure. Over time you can develop a tolerance to the substance, and have to increase your usage to get the same effect.
You also become super alert to the enjoyment you receive, and start obsessing over the pleasure source. This is what maintains the compulsion.
Dr. Eric Stice is a neurologist and senior research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. He’s a pioneer in using brain-imaging technology to study obesity. According to Stice, “Palatable foods – high fat, high sugar foods -- activate brain rewards circuitry in a very parallel way that drugs of abuse do.”
He goes on to report, “There are two changes that happen in our brains as we eat a whole bunch of palatable foods on a regular basis. One is that we get a blunted response to our reward circuitry, which is akin to tolerance with drug abuse.”
Stice continues, “The other aspect of it is a little more insidious, and that is you become hyper vigilant to cues that have been associated with the reward from food or drugs. And then when you see those cues you start craving the food or the drugs.”
In short, not only is the food industry poisoning us with sugar, but it’s also stringing us out like junkies.
There is hope, however. You can save yourself by taking responsibility and cutting back on sugar. According to the American Heart Association, you should limit your sugar intake. The average woman should restrict her diet to only 100 calories a day – that’s about six teaspoons. The average man should limit himself to 150 calories or nine teaspoons.
Look at the packaging of foods, too. Be alert to the word “sugar” printed anywhere. Be aware of sugar in any form, such as beet sugar or inverted sugar. Lastly, be conscious of any words ending in “ose” on food labels like glucose or fructose.
As it turns out your parents and teachers’ warnings about sugar were right – and then some. Sugar can literally be a death sentence. The answer is to limit your sugar by reading food labels and watching your sugar intake.