Jane Says: 130 Pounds of Sugar a Year Is Way, Way Too Much

Cutting back on soft drinks and packaged foods is an easy way to reduce fructose consumption.

Would you like one lump of sugar or 1,000? (Photo: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images)

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“What is a ‘realistic’ way to begin (operative word here) eliminating bad sugars from my diet?”
—Catherine Jennings

Whether you are eager to get back into the groove after one last handful of gumdrops or embracing a more healthful lifestyle for the first time, reining in your sugar consumption is a great place to start—especially in light of a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although the study was small (just 20 people, all young and of normal weight), it was the first to use MRI scans to investigate the human brain’s response to fructose and glucose, two simple sugars that are used separately or combined as sweeteners for food and beverages.

Glucose, which is found in plants (it’s a product of photosynthesis), is the main source of energy for cells. When your body’s supply runs low, your brain activates the area that stimulates appetite. Once the glucose level rises, the brain hits the off switch. With fructose, though, the MRI scans revealed that the brain can’t tell when enough is enough. The upshot? You still think you’re hungry, and keep eating.

Fructose, of course, is also found in plants, including a vast array of fruits and vegetables. Along with the fructose in fruits and veggies, you’re also getting fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals—chemical compounds in plants that have protective, disease-preventing effects in humans. Naturally occurring sugars are integral to a particular food’s complete arsenal of healthful components. Within the food industry, however, fructose is generally extracted from sugar cane, beets, and corn, then added to all manner of processed foods and drinks to make them more flavorful. It can act as a preservative, balance acidity, or improve viscosity, texture, or ease of browning. It’s what’s known as an added sugar—along with the other sweeteners, including sucrose (table sugar), brown sugar, maple syrup, and/or high-fructose corn syrup found in almost every packaged item, literally from soup to nuts, on supermarket shelves. Unsurprisingly, added sugar lurks under many different names; click here and scroll down to see a helpful list published by the USDA.

We all know one down side of consuming foods and beverages with added sugar is that they supply empty calories, so called because they have few or no nutrients. But some researchers go further, maintaining that added sugar is toxic.

This is not news to anyone who remembers William Dufty’s 1975 runaway bestseller Sugar Blues, but last year, a controversial commentary published in the British science journal Nature made quite a splash. Authored by Robert H. Lustig, Laura A. Schmidt, and Claire D. Brindis, all from the University of California, San Francisco, and titled “The Toxic Truth About Sugar,” (the piece, which is behind a pay wall, is available here), it advocated for regulating added sugar—linked as it is to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, an increase in triglycerides (the fats associated with heart disease and stroke), and liver problems—as strictly as alcohol and tobacco.

Whether on not sugar should be deemed a poison (know that even water can be toxic if overconsumed) or restricted like alcohol and tobacco, one fact is certain: Over the years, our intake has steadily risen to the present estimate of a whopping 130 pounds annually.

Good lord. Whatever happened to moderation? When I was growing up—in the South, mind you, where sweetness is highly prized—a Coke, a slab of pie, or even a drizzle of tupelo honey on a biscuit was considered a Very Special Treat, and was rationed accordingly.

So it’s high time to get a grip. If you simply cut out the foods and beverages that contain the most added sugar, you are well on your way to a far more healthful diet.

Here are a few tips to get you started.

•      Drink water or unsweetened iced tea instead of sugary sodas or blended coffee drinks. Just doing this one simple thing will make you feel as though you are making a difference. And you are.

•      Cook from scratch at home and steer clear of processed foods that contain added sugar.

•      If you drink juice, make sure it's 100 percent fruit instead of juice drinks or “cocktails” that have added sugar. Even better, eat the fruit rather than drink the juice.

•      Watch your consumption of dried fruits; some of them, like cranberries, contain added sugar.

•      Choose breakfast cereals very carefully. Even “healthy” or organic breakfast cereals can contain added sugar to make them more appealing.

•      Use condiments such as ketchup and commercial salad dressings sparingly.

•      For snacking, reach for vegetables, fruits, and unsweetened yogurt instead of candy and baked goods.

•      As far as dessert goes, choose fresh fruit instead of baked goods or ice cream.

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