My oldest son’s fourth-grade class is preparing for its annual Halloween party, and parents have been emailing what they intend to bring for food and drink. Here’s what we know so far (names have been changed to protect identities): Jenny’s mom will bring cupcakes, Jake’s dad will bring three large bags of assorted candies, Molly’s parents are bringing caramel apples and fudge bars, John’s mom will bring a mixed case of soda and fruit punch, Kate’s mom is bringing an ice cream cake, and on it goes, ad infinitum… Emily and I have offered to bring a bag of insulin, B vitamins, and water. Seriously people, what are we teaching our children about moderation? Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for children having a Halloween party, but do they always need to overdose on sugar to have a good time?
We all look forward to that wonderful trifecta of holidays where we reconnect with friends and family, party and make merry, honor religious traditions, and eat our body weight in sugar. Then, before that last fruitcake has digested, it’s January 1st, a sobering reminder that we’re overweight, fatigued, and generally feeling crappy. Unfortunately for a growing majority of Americans, the holiday season of excessive sugar consumption is every week. If the President came to me and said, “Ok Michael, here’s a microphone and podium, you’re on national television, tell the American people anything you want.” I would look directly in the camera and say, “Everyone must stop eating so much sugar, it’s ruining your health and slowly killing you!” When I talk to people about their sugar intake many insist they don’t eat a lot of sugar, but what most people don’t realize is sugar is added to just about every food in the Western American diet. Before you know it, by the end of the day, you have consumed too much sugar. You can test this for yourself by keeping a food diary. From your first meal to your last, record all sugar calories consumed (added and naturally occurring) in one day. Do this for several weeks and you will be surprised by the results. More sugar is consumed in America than in any other country in the world. The average American consumes 130 lbs. of sugar each year, which is approximately 33 teaspoons per day. It is estimated that 60-70% of the typical American diet contains a combination of sugar and refined carbohydrates. Added sugar alone accounts for an additional 500 Kcal per day for most Americans. To add some perspective, in 1822 the average American consumed 45 grams of sugar in a five-day period. Today, the average American consumes 765 grams of sugar in the same five-day time period. You might be thinking, “But Michael, sugar really can’t be that bad, it’s a necessary carbohydrate right?” Ok, so let’s take a closer look at what sugar is and why it’s so harmful.
Sugar or sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. All living cells use glucose as a fuel source and it’s considered a necessity of life. Glucose doesn’t taste good, but fructose is seductively sweet and gives sugar its addictive potential. While sugar is “empty calories”, meaning it has no nutritive value, the glucose molecule does have benefits for human health. Glucose is a primary fuel source for energy production systems and can be especially useful for athletes that need a constant supply of energy for working muscle. Glucose is metabolized via insulin in the muscle, liver, and other organ systems, and any excess is stored in the muscle as glycogen. Moderate glucose consumption from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains would be considered beneficial and part of a healthy diet. Just remember that excessive glucose from refined grains and starches will cause you to gain weight.
Fructose, glucose’s evil twin brother, is a different beast altogether. Here, I’m referring to processed and concentrated fructose that is added to foods as any form of corn syrup or sugar. It has no physiological value and is only metabolized in the liver. Through a process called de novo lipogenesis, it’s converted to fat and either stored in the liver or throughout the body in visceral or subcutaneous fat deposits. According to Robert Lustig, M.D., a specialist on pediatric hormone disorders and the leading expert in childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, fructose is a “toxin” or “poison”. And yes, he has the evidence to prove it. I’ve been following Dr. Lustig’s work for quite some time and I’ve reviewed the research data that he’s presented. I’m convinced that the evidence is now incontrovertible-excessive fructose consumption in the form of sugar (sucrose, HFCS) is a direct dietary cause of metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance), cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and obesity. High sugar consumption has also been linked to accelerated cellular aging (Maillard reaction), chronic inflammation, fatigue, hypertension, mood disorders, and cancer. Choose your poison sugar (fructose) is metabolized in much the same way as ethanol (alcohol); the effect on the liver is almost identical. Sugar, like cocaine and opiates, stimulates the reward centers in the brain (dopamine) creating an addiction potential. Also, sugar disrupts normal metabolic function and hormonal mechanisms that control appetite. This is exactly why people who eat an excessive amount of sugar can’t control their sugar cravings and continue to consume with reckless abandon. Make no mistake sugar is a drug! It’s time we start taking sugar consumption seriously in this country. If you want to age well, maintain a healthy weight, have vitality and strength, and reduce your risk of developing the diseases of affluence, reduce or eliminate added sugar in your diet. Get your sugar from moderate amounts of fruits, vegetable starches, and whole, unrefined grains. If you crave something sweet make a dessert with stevia or xylitol, or use a small amount of unrefined sugar and limit your consumption. I stand with the American Heart Association on their recommendation for total sugar intake per day: women 25 grams, men 37.5 grams.
Now, I have an important homework assignment for you. Go to youtube.com and search for this video: “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” by Robert Lustig, MD. Make sure you’re sitting down when you watch this video because I guarantee you will never look at sugar the same way again!
Michael Chase, MS, NTP
Nutrition Science and Dietetics