You are probably aware that eating too much sugar is bad for your health. Excessive sugar intake causes hormonal changes and inflammation that can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. For decades an emphasis was placed on lowering fat intake, especially saturated fat and cholesterol, to reduce the risk of obesity and heart disease.
Unfortunately, much of this advice was misguided and while fat intake went down, sugar consumption in processed and prepared food increased. This is now seen as a primary cause of the current obesity and diabetes epidemic. The impact of sugar on health and steps you can take to reduce sugar intake are the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
The majority of processed foods contain some form of sugar or other sweeteners. Sugar as most of us know it is called sucrose and typically comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. If you look closely at a food label, though, you may not see sucrose listed. This is because there are a variety of “sugars” used by food manufacturers. For example, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sugar derived from corn that is sweeter than regular corn syrup. This is worth mentioning because, thanks to corn subsidies, HFCS is cheap for food manufacturers to use.
Many public health medical professionals are increasingly concerned about the high sugar consumption in our population. Despite eating more reduced-fat foods, Americans have been getting fatter, and high sugar intake is thought to play a role in this trend. The individual and public health effects of excessive sugar consumption have been known for years. In addition to the extra calories from sugars that lead to weight gain, the way that sugar is metabolized is associated with hypertension, high blood glucose, and high blood lipids. This combination of conditions is called the metabolic syndrome and is linked to a high risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Obviously, reducing sugar consumption would be beneficial to many. Once controversial suggestion for how to reduce sugar consumption is through taxation and regulation. The idea of taxing added sugar is not new and a “fat tax” was proposed years ago as a way of limiting the amount of added fat in foods. Although controversial, one potential benefit of taxing products that contain added sugar—soda, other sweetened beverages, and sugared cereal, for example—is that significant revenue could be generated. This money could be used to subsidize the cost of healthier foods or to offset the health care costs associated with obesity.
Even more controversial is a recommendation that children be restricted from purchasing sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, similar to the age requirement to purchase alcohol. This would limit access for children, who stand to experience the greatest health consequences from excessive sugar intake.
It is unlikely that these regulatory measures will be enacted any time soon, if ever. But it does start a conversation about the negative effects our food supply has on us. You should know that the focus is on added sugars in processed foods, not naturally-occurring sugars in fruit and plain milk or yogurt.
Starting today, you should try to reduce your consumption of added sugars. One easy way to limit the amount of added sugar you eat is to avoid processed foods and eat more “real” food. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, meat, beans, and dairy are known to have health benefits and have no added sugar. When you do eat packaged foods, pay attention to food labels and look for foods and snacks that have no added sugar.