June 18th, 2018

Is Sugar the New Cigarette?

Cheap, sweet, and easily accessible, sugar keeps millions of Americans fed and hydrated everyday. But at what cost? Doctors, dieticians, dentists, and exercise physiologists warn our patients about the dangers of excess sugar throughout the day, but what amount or volume constitutes excess sugar?

What is Sugar? Simple sugar, also known as glucose, is the most basic form of carbohydrate (or carb) that our bodies use to energize each of its millions of functions. Glucose flows through our bloodstreams to fuel everything we do from running a marathon to simply sitting at rest. Without sufficient amounts of glucose, we’ll notice effects of lethargy, difficulty focusing, weakness, exhaustion, feeling cold, and muscle cramping. These effects are often referred to as “low blood sugar”. For most of us, low blood sugar signals our brains to feel hungry and eat a meal or snack. The carbohydrates we eat are broken down from starches such as vegetables, fruits, and grains into glucose to be used for energy and the cycle repeats.

How Does Sugar Hurt Us? Imagine sliding down a waterslide while sitting inside an inner tube. You sit back and glide down the water through loops and turns, slipping and sliding along the way. Now, imagine replacing the water with simple syrup. You’ll technically still move down the slide but at a significantly slower pace. Over time, the syrup might thicken and sugar granules will scrape along the walls of the slide and the inner tube, causing ruptures and sticking. Similarly, elevated blood sugar levels will damage walls of blood vessels as well as the blood cells themselves. If someone regularly consumes high-sugar foods such as sodas, juices, breads, pastas, and pastries, there’s an increased risk of damage to the cardiovascular, nervous, and endocrine systems.

How Much Sugar is Okay? For the average healthy adult, the sugar naturally occurring in whole foods is nothing to worry about as long as the individual doesn’t overeat throughout the day. Whole foods are foods eaten as close to their original state found in nature (fruits, vegetables, meat, nuts, and legumes). The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 5% of someone’s diet comprised of added sugar. To give a frame of reference, 5% of an average 2,000-calorie diet, is 25 grams. Although that may seem like an alarmingly large amount of sugar, many Americans actually surpass that amount of sugar consumed in their daily diets. The average American consumes 82-100 grams of added sugar each day, even when assuming he or she is consuming a “healthy” diet. Added sugar sneaks into our coffee creamer, oatmeal or cereal, breads on our sandwiches, non-plain yogurts, granola bars, sauces and condiments, pastas, and even some nut butters!

So What Does This All Mean? The main message to take away from all of this information is to consume a diet rich in real, whole foods. Even a food item considered “healthy” could have sneaky added sugars. Focus on a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, lean meats and fish, nuts and legumes, and whole grains such as quinoa. For the average healthy adult, there’s no need to obsess over food labels as long he or she consumes a balanced diet.

If you ever need assistance to understand your sugar needs in your fitness and wellness journey, consult a registered dietician or exercise physiologist!