Sugar: How Bad Is It for You, Really?

Sugar: How Bad Is It for You, Really?

Sugar can kill you. That’s the headline popping up all over the Internet following the publication of a study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at the relationship between added sugar consumption and heart disease. And what the researchers found is pretty frightening. The average American diet contains enough added sugar to increase the risk of heart-related death by 18 percent. What’s worse, consuming more than 21 percent of your calories (that’s 420 calories in a 2,000 calorie a day diet) from added sugar more than doubles your risk of death from heart disease. Now, this isn’t the first time added sugar has received negative press. Research has shown that too much of the sweet stuff can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, cognitive decline and even cancer. So, should you rush to your pantry or fridge and throw out everything that has added sugar?

Don't fall for empty calorie promises from "natural sugar" ads.

The Sugar That Kills
Not all sugar is bad for you. Your body needs carbohydrates (starches and naturally occurring sugars like what you find in fruit or milk), which are broken down into glucose to create energy. The culprit behind heart disease and other serious health problems is added sugar—any sugar that’s been added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation. You’ll find added sugars in things like soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, ice cream, candy, cakes, cookies pastries, cereal, bread, flavored yogurt, salad dressing and ketchup. These sugars add calories to your food, but little or no nutrients. By comparison, foods that contain naturally occurring sugars tend to be nutrient-rich, which helps slows down sugar absorption.

Find out who consumes the most added sugar.

Added Sugars in Disguise
We often eat food with added sugar without even realizing it. That’s because it’s a sneaky sweetener with many names. The next time you look at a food label keep your eye out for ingredients that end in –ose, such as dextrose, glucose, maltose and sucrose, as well as any types of syrup, such as rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup or malt syrup. Some other added sugars include honey (which may be slightly healthier than refined sugar because of its small amounts of fiber and nutrients) molasses, fruit juice concentrates and evaporated cane juice.

Is agave syrup a healthy sugar alternative?

How Much Is Too Much?
Given all the ways added sugar in processed foods is bad for the body, is any amount safe? Right now, we just don’t know. There isn’t a magic number for the amount of added sugar that’s deemed “healthy.” The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to less than 100 calories a day for most women and 150 for most men. To put things in perspective, a single 12-ounce can of sweetened soda contains about 140 calories of sugar—enough to put a woman into a higher-risk category if she drinks a soda a day. The World Health Organization recommends that added sugars make up less than 10 percent of your total calories (less than 200 calories in a 2,000 calorie diet).

Got a sweet tooth? Find out how to end sugar cravings.

Whether you decide to completely cut out added sugars is up to you. But if you’re concerned you’re eating too much, consider some of these tips from the American Heart Association:

  1. Buy sugar-free or low-calorie beverages.
  2. Buy fresh fruits or fruits canned in water or natural juice.
  3. Add fresh fruit to sweeten cereal or oatmeal.
  4. When baking, cut the sugar called for in your recipe by one-third to one-half.
  5. Substitute unsweetened applesauce for sugar in recipes. 

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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