Spotlight On: Sugar

Since first introduced into human diets, sugar has consistently expanded its place in the average human diet.

However, science demonstrates that there are significant health effects that can result from diets high in refined sugars. Links between sugar consumption and obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and liver disease are all well documented in scientific literature.

Despite these demonstrated risks, the average American consumes roughly 50% more added sugar than recommended by dietary guidelines.

Being aware of the consequences of sugar, and how easy it is to consume too much of it each day, can help you to manage your weight in a holistic manner, while providing your body with other significant health benefits.

Types of Sugar

While many of us think of the white granules people add to coffee or tea as sugar, there are many types of sugar. Brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose, and turbinado sugar are all forms of added sugar.

Sugars can be broken down into a few groups relevant to human diets: Each type comes from different sources and affects your body in different ways.

Sucrose: Derived from sugarcane or sugar beets, this is the white table sugar we often think of. It contains both glucose and fructose in equal amounts.

Glucose: Glucose can be found in honey, vegetables, and fruits. Glucose can be absorbed directly by the blood.

Fructose: Fructose is found in honey and fruit. Fructose must be processed by the liver before entering the bloodstream. Many nutritional experts assert that fructose isn’t inherently bad, and is healthy when consumed naturally in fruits and vegetables. [1]

In the United States, much of the added sugar in food products is high fructose corn syrup. Studies have suggested that diets high in added fructose can have adverse health consequences.

Consuming large amounts of fructose can affect the regulation of hunger regulation hormones. Fructose can increase feelings of hunger more than glucose. One study demonstrated that the body converts fructose to fat with “surprising speed.” [2]

How much is too much?

Under guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, no more than 10% of your daily calories should come from added sugar. However, American adults, on average, get 17% of their daily calories from sugar.

Based on a 2,000 calorie diet (above what some may be eating, especially when seeking to lose weight), an average adult should have no more than 200 calories per day from added sugar, or no more than 50 grams. (Each gram of sugar is equivalent to four calories.)

It is surprisingly easy to exceed the recommended daily amount. A single 20 fluid ounce soda is around 220 calories, all of which are from added sugar. A six-ounce serving of sweetened yogurt has approximately 72 calories of added sugar. A Clif bar can contain around 84 calories. Thus, you can see how quickly it can add up in the average diet, especially one high in processed foods.

By consuming whole foods, avoiding sugary beverages, and being aware of the ingredients in your food, you can manage the sugars in your diet.

Surprising foods containing added sugar: Ketchup & Yogurt.

Though there are many reasons for this, there is a clear link between excessive sugar consumption and diabetes risk. Obesity, which is often caused by consuming too much sugar, is considered the strongest risk factor for diabetes. Also, drinking a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked to an increased amount of visceral fat, a kind of deep belly fat associated with conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

A population study comprising over 175 countries found that the risk of developing diabetes grew by 1.1% for every 150 calories of sugar, or about one can of soda, consumed per day.

Other studies have also shown that people who drink sugar-sweetened beverages, including fruit juice, are more likely to develop diabetes.

Furthermore, diets high in sugar increase inflammation in your body and may cause insulin resistance, both of which increase cancer risk.

High blood-sugar levels cause the body to produce an excess of insulin, potentially damaging the pancreas. It can hinder the passage of blood proteins.

If you’re consuming excess calories and fructose, that fructose can get converted to triglycerides, which makes it mildly worse than glucose in that regard.

Sugar Addiction

As a source of rapid energy, simple sugars can provide our minds with a quick sense of reward. When you eat refined sugars, especially in the absence of other nutrients like fiber and protein that slow the digestive process, your blood sugar levels spike, and your brain receives a boost of energy. When you eat sugary foods, your brain releases dopamine, a chemical that cause you to feel pleasure. [3]

Like with any other behavior, stimulating this reward system frequently with sugary foods can create a sense of dependence. This effect can be reinforced because of the “crash” feeling that can follow a large dose of sugar. Further, a tolerance may develop, leading your brain to require greater and greater amounts of it in order to release dopamine. [4] Brain imaging studies have shown similarities between the brains of obese individuals and the brains of individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol.

This dynamic can lead people to develop strong cravings. This can lead to a loss of control and over-consumption, reinforcing the cycle of addiction.

Americans as a whole have demonstrated this tolerance and addiction effect. For more than a century, sugar has made up an ever-increasing proportion of the American diet.

US sugar consumption 1822-2005

The following table shows US per capita sugar consumption increasing steadily between 1822 to 2005.

Cutting your Sugar Use

In order to cut your intake, there are 2 strategies you should implement: awareness & adaptation.

First, you should get familiar with the sources of sugar in your own diet in order to become aware of your intake. Then, armed with this new awareness, you should begin to consciously adapt your behaviors to reduce that sugar intake. Eventually, these conscious behaviors will become subconscious, and you will have adapted to a new, healthier, and more holistic diet.


The amount of added sugar in many common foods may surprise you. Even sodas, sports drinks, candy bars and other foods we all know of have far more of it than many of us realize.

Further, there are many sources in our diets that are far less obvious. Everything from breads to nut butters can be a source. Even foods we think of as healthy can be packed with it. Single serve yogurts, meal replacement bars, protein drinks and fruit juices can all be significant sources of sugar. Remember that it can come from your plate as well. Many sauces, including ketchup and barbeque sauce, contain high levels of added sugar.

Check the labels on some of your favorite foods to understand your own sugar intake.


If you currently have a diet high in sugar, the best way to adapt is to take it slow. Ease your body and mind into reducing your intake.

For instance, you can begin by eliminating one sugary food per day. You could switch a soda for a lightly sweetened or unsweetened iced tea. Trading your desserts for fruits can satisfy your sweet tooth with less sugar. Taking these and similar steps will allow you to make meaningful and sustainable lifestyle changes over time.

Eliminating all sugar from your diet is unsustainable and can be a burden to those around you. Eating whole foods is a holistic way to consume sugars in conjunction with other useful nutrients like proteins and vitamins. This slows the body’s absorption and limits the dopamine response.

Some may want to replace their added sugars with artificial sweeteners. Potential negative health effects of such products aside, the use of these replacements can leave you craving more. By simply shifting your tastes to a different kind of sweet, prevents your body and mind from getting used to the flavor of food without sweeteners. Your chances of successfully cultivating long-term dietary change will better if you eliminate sugars rather than attempt to replace them with substitutes.


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