The War on Sugar

Recently, I heard a story titled “From Detox To Elimination Diets, Skipping Sugar May Be The Best Bet” on All Things Considered (NPR). It’s amazing how many times I’ll talk to patients about their dietary habits and the variety of things they tell me – the worst I have heard so far is someone drinking 2 liters of Mountain Dew every day. Many of them have Type II Diabetes or are obese and have tried a variety of ways to lose weight: no red meat, only meat/no carbs, vegan, etc.  It’s also amazing how little information there is on the health benefits of each of them as seen in this article: Science On Diets Is Low In Essential InformationI am vegetarian and my husband as a result eats mostly vegetarian with some chicken/fish/pork scattered throughout the week but the only real dietary limitation we place on ourselves is sugar consumption. We love an occasional ice cream or dessert but everything in moderation. 

This month’s JADA (Journal of the American Dental Association) had a guest editorial entitled ‘Dentists and sugary drinks’ by Rob H. Beaglehole, BDS, MSC in which he states that ‘Inhabitants of the United States consume sugar, particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, at an alarming rate.’ According to Dr. Beaglehole, the average American consumes 50 gallons of sugar per year or about 1.5 cans of soda per person per day. Sugar-sweetened beverages and foods, when consumed frequently and/or in excess, have a damaging impact on health including concerns with obesity and dental cavities. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a guideline recommending that daily sugar intake should be 5% or less of total energy intake and at most 10% of total energy intake. This translates to a maximum of 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of sugar for adults and 3 teaspoons (12 grams) of sugar for children daily. To put it in perspective, the article states that one 8 oz can of regular soda contains 9 teaspoons of sugar – 3 days’ worth of sugar for a child (a 20 oz bottle of soda contains 16 teaspoons of sugar or 5 days worth for a child).

This study by David S Ludwig, Karen E Peterson, and Steven L Gortmaker shows that for each extra can of sugar-sweetened beverages consumed per day, the likelihood of a child becoming obese increases by 60%. What is the number 1 selling item in the United States? In 2009, Americans spent $12 billion on carbonated beverages at grocery stores alone, making it the best-selling grocery store item, according to Information Resources, a marketing research firm.

Many people have made the switch to calorie-free diet sodas, however they can still be related to health problems. Though diet sodas do not leave sugars coating the teeth that feed plaque and lead to cavities – they still have a lot of acid. Over time acid can strip the protective strong enamel from your teeth and leave them more vulnerable to sensitivity or cavities from other sugars/acid in your diet. There are more studies linking ingredients in diet soda to weight gain, glucose intolerance, and other metabolic disorders but they all have flaws that cannot connect cause to effect. Overall I am a strong believer in only having soda on rare occasion and in moderate amounts.

So how best to reduce sugar for me and my family?

  • Eliminating one 12 oz can of sugar-sweetened soda can cut 9 teaspoons of sugar in one day.
  • Look at nutrition labels: many seemingly healthy foods have hidden added sugars. Some yogurt brands have 17+ grams of sugar per serving. I like Greek yogurt due to the protein content and recently started eating Icelandic yogurt (skyr) after noticing how much sugar was in our Greek yogurt.
    • siggi’s brand yogurt (strawberry flavor) has 3.4 gm sugar from milk, .1 gram sugar from fruit, and 7.5 gm from cane sugar. It’s protein content is 14 grams in the 110 calorie/5.3 oz container. It contains no artificial sweeteners/flavors and every flavor truly tastes fantastic with a really creamy thick texture (our favorites are Pomegranate Passion Fruit and Blueberry in 0% milkfat; Pumpkin & Spice and Mango Jalapeño with 2% milkfat). siggi’s has about 1 tsp less of sugar than other popular Greek yogurt brands and a few more grams of protein. They have seasonal flavors including Coffee, Strawberry & Basil, Pear, and many more.
    • 7.5 grams of added sugar is a little less than 2 teaspoons which still adds up to 33% of the daily WHO guidelines so we still need to be aware of other foods we eat on a daily basis.
    • The healthiest way to decrease sugar in yogurt but still get the protein is to use a plain greek yogurt and add fruit for sweetness, but as a relatively nutritious snack, siggi’s Icelandic skyr is pretty good.
  • The primary food sources of added sugars in diets of US children aged 2-18 years includes: soft drinks/sodas, candy/sugar/sugary foods, fruit drinks/lemonades, cakes/cookies, cereals. So cutting down on these main sources of sugar for your kids will improve their chances of a long and healthy life.
  • Older kids tend to sip on sports drinks and sodas during the day and then while at sporting events and then again at home. By drinking these all day long the oral cavity pH decreases significantly and never has a chance to get back to a more neutral zone. It’s best to try to replace these drinks with water but if they do drink them, it should only be during meal time when there is more saliva present.
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