This week, I was asked by a reporter: "Is added sugar poisonous?" I emphatically answered, "No". Let me tell you why.
The definition of 'poison' is "a substance that through its chemical action usually kills, injures, or impairs an organism", according to Merriam-Webster. Typical poisons include cyanide, alcohol and toxins found in mushrooms.
The definition of 'added sugar' is any form of sugar that is added to a product to make it more palatable and/or for preservation. Added sugars are ingredients like honey, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, cane sugar, agave nectar, etc.
Many food and drinks contain added sugar. Examples include yogurt, juice, almond milk, iced tea, cereal, granola bars, pizza dough, and ketchup. According to the Dietary Guidelines of Americans 2015 report, most Americans eat about 350 calories per day in added sugar. This is equal to 22 teaspoons! And, about 50% of those added sugars are from sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, juices, coffees, and teas.
For women, the recommendation from the American Heart Association (AHA) is to consume 6 teaspoons or less per day, equal to 24 grams and 96 calories. For men, the recommendation from AHA is to consume 9 teaspoons or less per day, equal to 36 grams and less than 150 calories.
We consume too much added sugar. That's a fact. And, it is not because we lack willpower or don't exercise enough, although food companies would like us to think so. There are more compelling reasons.
First, food and beverage companies make it nearly impossible for us to stay away from their products. Marketing abounds, especially in socioeconomically depressed areas, and we are told these products bring us joy and happiness. They market feelings and emotions, rather than actual products. And, it works. Tell me a time when you felt unhappy eating a cookie or drinking soda! Many people actually use foods with added sugar as ways to mask negative emotions, like fear and sadness.
Second, you'd never suspect that certain foods even have added sugar. Take flavored yogurt, for example. You'd think a yogurt already has enough natural sugar from the milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose), and does not need any more! But, many companies add cane sugar to make it even sweeter, getting you to come back for more.
And, we aren't being educated about how to determine if a food has added sugar. In fact, even if you knew there was added sugar by looking at the ingredient list, you wouldn't know how much. The Nutrition Facts Panel doesn't indicate how much sugar is 'added'.
What happens when we eat too much added sugar? Our risk for obesity, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver diease (NAFLD) and type 2 diabetes (T2DM) goes up. Weight gain occurs because the calories from added sugar are mostly in liquid form or in foods that are not satisfying and don't fill us like cookies, so we don't compensate elsewhere by eating less.
Risk for heart disease and NAFLD goes up because of increased cholesterol production as sugar is processed through the liver and turned into triglycerides. Risk for T2DM increases because our bodies get tired of continuously shuttling sugar to cells using insulin; then, our bodies become more resistant to insulin, keeping blood sugar high.
You're probably thinking I'm making the case that added sugar is poison. I'm not. In moderate amounts and in the context of a healthful diet with plenty of veggies, fruit, whole grains, healthy fats, lean protein and healthy fat- added sugar is fine to eat.
So, why isn't added sugar poison? First, it alone won't kill you, injur you, or impair you. Second, not eating added sugar at all is a form of restriction and typically, it never works. When we tell ourselves or are told we can't do something, we usually want to do it! The word 'no' often forces us in the opposite direction.
Same with food. When we restrict food or a food group, we usually end up eating too much of it at some point. As Nancy Clark states in her book, Sports Nutrition Guidebook, "food restriction breeds food interest."
For instance, when we tell ourselves 'Tomorrow, I will stop eating ice cream', we usually think about eating it frequently and at some point, 'give in'. What if we told ourselves, 'Going forward, I'll eat less ice cream'? Maybe we wouldn't feel we 'gave in' when we have it next and we'd also think about making other changes to our eating like adding more veggies.
Another example is from my work with people who restrict food for a while, like in the case of someone with anorexia nervosa. Typically, that person ends up bingeing or overeating at some point. And, if they don't eat too much, they may instead binge on something else that gets them a high like drugs, social media or exercise.
When we feel we have eaten "too much" or "too much sugar" we end up feeling guilty, shameful and crappy. That is why normalizing eating patterns to include foods with added sugar every now and then is important. It also allows us to enjoy our social and cultural lives; I can't imagine not eating my Mom's apple pie at Thanksgiving!
Since we're eating too many calories from added sugar, the goal is to replace calories from added sugar with calories from whole foods. And, if someone needs to lose weight, working to decrease calorie intake by replacing foods with added sugar with foods that are nutrient-dense and satisfying can be a great first step.
Added sugar is not healthful. And, marketing products with added sugar is wrong. That's why I'm not a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). It is not right that the AND takes money from an industry that promotes products with added sugar.
But, added sugar is not poison. A little each day is okay. We need to focus on what we can and should be eating by spending money on marketing healthful foods. And, we need to take the guilt away from people for their lack of 'willpower' and not exercising enough, and find ways to deal healthfully with negative emotions while getting 'high' in healthy ways like reading, talking with friends, listening to music and traveling.