Is Sugar Really That Bad for You?

For many years, fat was considered the nutritional bad guy, and most people were advised by health experts to cut back on the amount they were eating. But tides change, and dietary fat is no longer thought to be as unhealthy as it was back in the 1980s. Today, thereís a new nutritional villain in town: sugar.

In fact, fat and sugar have a few things in common. On the plus side, both are essential for good health, so you need to get some of each in your diet. Sugar is a carbohydrate that is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream to supply immediate energy. And, like fat, sugar "lifts" and balances the flavor of bland and acidic foods. But just as some fats are better for you than others, so are some sources of sugar.

Good Sugars, Bad Sugars

Good sugars are those that are naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Theyíre "good" not so much because they are natural, but because whole foods with naturally occurring sugars also contain a variety of essential vitamins, minerals, fibers, and other nutrients. You may have heard of some naturally-occurring sugars, such as lactose and fructose.

"Whole, fresh foods also contain more water than processed foods," points out Marina Chaparro, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "And that water helps with hydration, fullness, and digestion."

The sugars that are considered "bad" are the refined sugars that are added to foods, especially to commercially processed cakes, cookies, pastries, candy, and soft drinks. Some of the more commonly used added sugars you might find on nutritional labels include corn syrup, corn syrup solids, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, fructose, sucrose, glucose, cane juice, evaporated corn sweetener, honey, molasses, malt syrup, and maple syrup. What makes added sugar especially worrisome is the amount added to such a wide variety of foods in the American diet. If you eat a lot of commercially processed, sweetened foods, you have no control over the amount of sugar you consume.

Sugar and Health

Added sugar sneaks excess calories into the diet, which are converted to fat and contribute to overweight and obesity in children and adults. Sugar also works with bacteria in your mouth to weaken tooth enamel and cause cavities. Research also shows that eating excess sugar contributes to hardening of the arteries, which increases your risk of developing and dying from coronary artery disease that leads to a heart attack or stroke.

Although sugar doesnít directly cause diabetes, it contributes to the variations in blood glucose [sugar] levels that make diabetes such a dangerous disease. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 86 million American adults (more than 9% of the population), have prediabetes, an elevated blood sugar condition that increases the odds of developing full-blown diabetes, especially when combined with poor lifestyles choices, such as overeating and under-exercising. The CDC also estimates that one out of every three Americans will develop diabetes in their lifetime.

Know Your Limits

The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar of any kind to 2 tablespoons (6 teaspoons) a day for women, and 3 tablespoons (9 teaspoons) for men. Thatís a lot less than the just over half a pound, or 1 cup (16 tablespoons) of sugar that Americans consume each day. Thatís the equivalent 156 pounds of added sugar per person, per year! Itís easy to see how the sugar adds up if, for instance, soda is your beverage of choice. One 12-ounce can of soda contains about 3 tablespoons (9 teaspoons) of sugar, putting women over their limit with just one pour.

What to Do About a Sweet Tooth

If youíre looking for something sweet to eat, Chaparro recommends sticking to foods that contain natural sugars, and combining them with other natural foods that also contain no extra calories from added sugar or added fats.

For instance, "A smoothie made with nonfat plain yogurt and fresh, ripe fruit like peaches and strawberries, or a chunk of banana lightly spread with unsweetened, natural nut butter, can be just as satisfying to your sweet tooth as a piece of cake," she suggests. "Have these types of foods on hand and plan to have them as snacks so youíre less tempted to grab packaged convenience foods that are loaded with added sugar."

Marina Chaparro, MPH, RD, CDE ( reviewed this article.


Chaparro, Marina, MPH, RD, CDE. E-mail to author July 16, 2015.

American Diabetes Association. Reviewed and edited May 18, 2015.

"Added Sugars." American Heart Association. Updated November 19, 2014.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/National Center for Health Statistics. "Consumption of Added Sugars Among U.S. Adults." NCHS Data Brief No. 122. May 2013.

"2014 National Diabetes Statistics Report." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated May 15, 2015.

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