A Happy, Healthy Family


The Problem with Sugar: A Sweet, Sweet Poison

If you've tried any of my breakfast recipes so far, like the Whole Wheat Banana Oat Muffins, the Whole Wheat Blueberry Waffles, or the Easy Maple Nut Granola, your first thought may have been that they needed more sugar.

I know exactly what you mean, and that's why I'm trying to retrain my taste buds. Those recipes already have added sugar, albeit in smaller amounts than you're probably used to!

If I have one food vice, it's sugar.

I've mentioned before that I grew up on fat-free foods. Well, when companies remove the fat from foods, they have to add something to keep their foods from being tasteless, and that something is sugar, and lots of it.

Sugar is in nearly everything you will find at the grocery store, and it comes in many different forms: high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, molasses, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, barley malt, brown rice syrup, blackstrap molasses, beet sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin, date sugar, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, confectioners' sugar, sorghum, rice bran syrup, sucrose, tapioca syrup, treacle, and turbinado sugar, among others.

But what about "natural" sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and agave? Aren't they better than refined granulated sugar? Sort of, but not really. Natural sweeteners may contain small amounts of antioxidants and minerals that refined sugar does not, but, ultimately, all sugars affect your body similarly, so you don't have the green light to pour honey or maple syrup all over your food.

We all know that sugar is in candy, cakes, cookies, and cereal, but it also lurks in bread, juice, pasta sauce, deli meats, salad dressing, flavored nuts, yogurt (check your label--there's often an entire day's worth of sugar in yogurt), crackers, applesauce, peanut butter, frozen pizza, coffee creamer...you name it, sugar's probably there.

Of course, there is also naturally-occurring sugar in fruits, but the fiber in those helps us metabolize the sugar more slowly, which keeps it from being quite so harmful.

And just how is sugar harmful? We all know that sugar causes tooth decay, but it also overloads our livers and leads to fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

In fact, sugar is so harmful that some researchers are now calling it "toxic." And, if that's not scary enough, in a recent study, laboratory rats chose sugar over cocaine--cocaine to which they were already addicted.

No wonder so many of us crave it!

Some of you may be thinking, "Of course sugar's not good for us, but my family doesn't need to worry about it. We're skinny, we don't have a history of diabetes, we can eat whatever we want, etc."

You're wrong! "Skinny fat" is a real thing, guys. It's also called "normal-weight obesity," and it can be just as dangerous as the obesity you're used to seeing. Normal-weight obesity affects about 25% of normal-weight people and puts them at a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, but because they look "normal," they don't think they are unhealthy. Just because you're thin or of average weight doesn't mean you are fit or healthy in the least.

And there may be some of you saying, "I want my kids to have a fun childhood! What's wrong with a little candy, juice, or cookie a few times a day?"

Why does being a kid or having a fun childhood have to be equated with eating an addictive, possibly toxic substance? You surely wouldn't hand your child nicotine each day in order to create a magical childhood for him or her, would you?

The American Heart Association has published the following guidelines for daily sugar intake:
  • Children: limit sugar to 12-16 grams a day
  • Adult women/teens: limit sugar to 20 grams a day
  • Adult men/teens: limit sugar to 32-36 grams a day
Let's see how that plays out in a lunch many of us may give to our children, the classic PB&J:
    • 2 slices of store-bought wheat bread: 4 grams of sugar
    • 2 T of regular creamy peanut butter: 3 grams of sugar
    • 1 T of grape jelly: 10 grams of sugar
That's 17 grams of sugar in a sandwich alone, which is already over the entire daily recommendation for children and close to the daily recommendation for adult women and teens.

That doesn't include anything sweet at breakfast, any yogurt during the day, any juice, any type of sauce, any fruit snacks, or any dessert at night.

When you start to look at the labels of even the "healthy" foods you're buying, it's truly scary and disheartening to see just how overloaded our diets are with sugar, even when we are trying to monitor it.

So why is there so much sugar in the foods we eat?? Many people have compared the sugar industry's insidious advertising techniques, ability to hide the facts about how harmful their product is, and damage to the overall health of a nation to those of the tobacco industry years ago.

And artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sugar alcohols are not the answer. Some researchers believe they cause cancer as well, and they are, by name, artificial, which should be enough to give you pause.

The answer is to readjust our tastes and learn to eat real foods without the added sweetness.

I am not saying that I have conquered this addiction at all--it's something I work at all the time--but now that I know just how terrible sugar is for us and how very little of it we're supposed to be eating each day, I'm trying to retrain myself and to raise my children to have low-sugar tastes to begin with so that they don't have to squelch a bad habit later. After all, we're supposed to think of sweetness in terms of a blueberry or a carrot, not a piece of candy corn or a doughnut.

There are some great resources out there that can give you much more information about the harmful effects of sugar and why it is so very important that we reevaluate its presence in our diets.

If you have Netflix, watch the documentaries Sugar-Coated and Fed Up. Both discuss how the sugar content in our foods has spiked in recent decades and how our quality of health is inversely proportional to that rise.

The book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss will make you take a closer look at why you crave certain processed foods and what the food industry has to do with those cravings.

It is incredibly difficult to stay within the recommended sugar guidelines for children and adults, but we can at least make an effort; if we are to have any control over our health, we have to become more mindful of the ingredients in our food.

Take a look at the labels in your pantry and fridge, and, chances are, you'll be surprised at just how much sugar you're putting into your body each day.