Sifting Through New Sugar Guidelines

source: Flickr Howzey

source: Flickr Howzey

The American Heart Association’s new guidelines for added sugars was the topic of my latest article in the Chicago Tribune.  It’s been interesting to see the reaction to these new recommendations — which are the strictest of any major health organizations’ guidelines.  The AHA says most women should eat no more than 100 calories of added sugars or 6 teaspoons (25 grams), which is less than what you’d find in a can of soda.  Men are advised to keep added sugars to just 150 calories or 9 teaspoons (37 grams). The guidelines have stirred up a bit of debate, and I interviewed someone on both sides.

“These guidelines are a huge leap for many Americans, but I think it’s appropriate to set the bar high as we move toward this goal,” said Dr. David Ludwig, a nutrition researcher and pediatric obesity expert at Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.  Ludwig has been a vocal advocate of the controversial “soda tax” to help reduce our country’s reliance on sugar-sweetened beverages.” Sugar sweetened beverages (including soft drinks, sweet teas and energy drinks) are the major source of added sugars in the American diet.  A 12-ounce can of soda contains about 130 calories and 8 teaspoons of sugar.

I also talked with Jeff Stier, associate director of the American Council on Science and Health.

“There is nothing about sugar per se that’s harmful; it’s the over-consumption of sugar,” he told me.  “But it’s not just sugar, it’s the over-consumption of any source of calories.”  Stier said it’s the same as eating too many bagels.  Sugars and carbohydrates contain the same number of calories per gram as protein.  Fats contain more than twice as many.  “Our bodies can’t tell the difference between natural and added sugars because nutritionally they’re the same.  Added sugar causes obesity as much as the orange juice promoted by the American Heart Association causes obesity.

Stier believes than singling out sugar just distracts us from the larger goal of getting overall calorie intake in control.  “It comes down to calories consumed and calories burned,” he said.

So what’s the bottom line?

Sugar has always been criticized for being an “empty calorie.”  It adds calories without contributing any positive nutrients to our diet.  But beyond the calories (and of course the cavity connection), there’s a debate about how much we can blame sugar itself for obesity and diabetes.  Now the AHA raises concerns about the impact sugar has on our heart.

What we do know is that the form of the added sugars in our diet seems to make a difference.  Studies have shown that added sugars in soft drinks are more likely to have a negative impact on weight and diet quality, yet sugars added to flavored milk and breakfast cereals seem to have a positive influence.  So it makes sense to choose your sugar by the company it keeps.

The lead author of the AHA guidelines Rachel Johnson,PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, recommends that people use their added sugars “allotment” to enhance the flavor of nutrient-rich foods, such as milk, yogurt and whole-grain cereal, instead of eating candy and other sweets that offer little in return.

Cutting down on soft drinks seems like a prudent place to start.  These sweet drinks contribute 33% of the added sugars to the American diet — more than any other single source.  And it’s not just the calories, sweetened beverages are likely taking the place of a more nutritious choice.  So it’s what you’re missing that’s a problem too.

It’s really all about balance, said registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, a New York-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, who I interviewed for my Chicago Tribune article.

“You can’t point a finger at one food or one nutrient.  It’s a combination of so many things that contribute to our country’s health issues,” she said.  “Still, cutting down on sugar is a positive start.”

Click here to read the full article, including a sidebar that  identifies the major sources of added sugars in the American diet and explains various sugar definitions.

Now with sugar in the hot seat, the last thing I want people to do is turn to so-called natural sugars because they think they’re a better option.  All too often people are mislead and load up on “natural” alternatives, when in reality the ingredients are exactly the same as the ones they’re trying to avoid.  That’s the case with evaporated cane juice and agave nectar.   In fact, the government is looking into the potential confusion of the term “evaporated cane juice.”  It may sound better, but it’s sugar (from sugar cane).  It has nothing to do with juice.  Also, agave nectar has been the new darling in the natural foods industry, but this processed sugar from the agave cactus is now being investigated for potential health concerns. Don’t think you can indulge just because the food or beverage you buy boasts about “no refined sugar” when it contains evaporated cane juice or agave nectar.

Sugar is sugar, even with a more enticing name.  All forms can be enjoyed — in moderation.

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