Cutting back on sugar intake is a common goal to improve heath and promote weight loss. It is also a popular New Year’s resolution and many people have attempted to completely eliminate sugar on a 30-day (or longer) sugar challenge. There is good reason to do this: eating too much sugar is unhealthy! Excessive sugar intake causes hormonal changes and inflammation that can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This is especially true when combined with a lack of physical activity. And your dentist wants you to know that sugar is also associated with dental caries.
If you are trying to lose weight or if your goal is to eat healthier in general, reducing or eliminating added sugar will help more than any other single dietary change. Many people do this by switching from sugary sodas, juices, and other beverages to flavored, artificially sweetened drinks. This is good because it lowers sugar intake, but it may not be the best approach. This is the topic of my Health and Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
There is some concern over potential health risks of excessive artificial sweetener consumption, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, mood, and behavior. It is important to know that research does not support a strong association between typical artificial sweetener consumption and these health problems. That said, if your goal is to eat less processed food, avoiding artificial sweeteners is an excellent idea.
A more realistic concern may be the effect that replacing sugar with an equally sweet alternative has on your eating behavior and food preferences. Sweetness is one of the most important tastes we respond to, driving our food choices and the amount we eat. It is easy to become accustomed to a certain level of sweetness in food and beverages that make unsweetened “natural” options less palatable.
For example, in an effort to move away from soda and other beverages, many people drink flavored, artificially sweetened water. These drinks taste good and have no calories, so they seem like a smart choice. And they are, if you only consider calories. But these drinks create an expectation that water should be flavored and sweet, so they move people away from a goal of making water the primary source of hydration. I know several adults who simply won’t drink plain water!
This is especially true for children when it comes to fruit. Kids may develop an expectation that strawberries should taste like strawberry-flavored fruit snacks or that orange juice should taste as sweet as a sugar-free fruit drink. Children who learn that fruit should taste sweeter than it really is may not like real fruit when they try it. To a kid accustomed to drinking orange-flavored drinks, even sugar-free, an actual orange may taste sour.
So, if you are already cutting back on sugar intake, keep it up. If you haven’t tried to reduce your sugar consumption, you should. The health benefits are worth it! Keep in mind that you should also make an effort to cut back on sweets, too.
Take the sweet challenge by reducing your consumption of added sugars and sweeteners. One easy way to do this is to replace sweetened drinks with plain water, tea, and coffee. You should also avoid processed foods and eat more “real” food. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, meat, beans, and dairy are known to have health benefits and have no added sweetness. When you do eat packaged foods, pay attention to food labels and look for foods and beverages that have no added sugar or sweeteners.