Let’s do a hard think about the sugar we eat during the holidays.
A diet overly saturated with sugar is as American as apple pie. From the golden age of the Twinkie to this scary time of the Monster energy drink, our nation has grown accustomed to consuming sugar at an alarming rate. For instance, between 1980 and 2010 the amount of sugar that each American consumes per year increased from 80lbs/py/pp to 150lbs/py/pp (1,2) This number is outrageous, and stats like these always leave me with more questions than answers. These are important questions like, “What is this doing to our bodies?” and, “How is it even possible to consume that much sugar in a year?” Overall, I think the most critical question we must ask is, “How does the amount of sugar we consume each year keep rising so drastically?” What are the driving forces?
The American heart association recommends that men limit their daily sugar intake to less than 150 calories per day (37.5 grams, or 9 teaspoons) and 100 calories per day (25 grams, or 6 teaspoons) for women.
Sugar is Addictive A common misconception by the general public is that sugar is a harmless substance; this, however, may not be the case. When an individual consumes sugar, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to the reward center of the brain. When a given behavior stimulates the release of dopamine, a feeling of pleasure or enjoyment is correlated to the act, leading to repeated behavior to induce the same “high-like” effect over and over again. This explains why, despite the knowledge that eating excessive sugar is harmful to our health, we still chose to consume it on a daily basis. (3)
Typical Daily Consumption The American heart association recommends that men limit their daily sugar intake to less than 150 calories per day (37.5 grams, or 9 teaspoons) and 100 calories per day (25 grams, or 6 teaspoons) for women. These figures are good to know, but how does that compare to the products and serving sizes that we consume every day? To add some perspective, a 12oz can of coke contains 140 calories (39 grams, or 7.8 teaspoons) of sugar which surpasses the recommended daily intake with one only serving size. Also, juices from concentrate have similar values as soda—depending on the brand. One way to combat excessive sugar intake is to read your food labels and stay away from syrup sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose). (4)
The Dangers of Insulin Resistance Consumption of sugar causes the body to produce insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas. The production of insulin allows the body to utilize the excess sugar circulating in the blood as an alternative form of energy. This is a normal metabolic function, but like all systems in the body, if it is forced to work without a period of rest, the system can malfunction. The most common malfunction is insulin resistance; this occurs when the cells are continuously exposed to insulin, causing them to become desensitized to its effects. This hinders the body’s ability to eliminate the excess sugar, causing an increase in blood glucose levels that can lead to diabetes and other complications like heart-attack or stroke. (5)
Marketing the Problem We know sugar is addictive, and we know that consuming too much of it negatively impacts our health, yet the marketing of sugary substances has steadily increased over time. What gives? Let’s consider the negative implication of comparatively addictive substances like tobacco or alcohol. With alcohol, we know for sure that if you drink too much, your liver will shrivel up like a raisin, and you will die. With tobacco, we know for certain the correlation between being a life-long smoker, and sudden cancer of the mouth or lungs. Now, consider the fact that the myriad of negative health ramifications caused from consuming too much sugar can be vast and associative with other conditions, making them hard to tie directly and definitively with sugar consumption. When it comes to the FTC and advertising regulations, that ole’ adage always comes into play: “It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you can prove in court.” So, for now, advertisers can market sugary foods to whoever they want, including children. Gone the way of the buffalo is the Marlborough man, but the Kool-aide man is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
Final Thoughts It might be easy to place the blame on large corporations that are infusing more and more of our foods with high-fructose corn syrup, or the ad-men that are finding more powerful ways to appeal to our consciousness. It might feel nice to point the finger at the entire system and cry foul-play. But, in reality, it is every individual’s personal choices that determine if they consume nutritious food or not. No, it’s not always easy to know what the healthier options are, and yes, those whole foods are often more expensive. But those costs are minimal when compared to the price that our bodies pay when we consume too much sugar on a daily basis.