The Good, Bad and Confusing: Sugar and Your Health

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Since 1990, the rate of obesity among adults nationwide has increased more than 150 percent. In Texas, 32.4 percent of adults are obese, according to the latest America’s Health Rankings®  report.

In recent years, there have been questions about carbohydrates and sugar as contributing factors to obesity. Low-carbohydrate diets have been touted as the key to weight loss, and some people are even cutting fruit from their diets to reduce their sugar intake. Recent research in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicates we may not need to limit our sugar intake at all. With so much seemingly conflicting information, it is not surprising that rates of obesity and related chronic diseases are rising.

Not all sugar is damaging to our health. Sugar (also called simple carbohydrate) can be categorized into two groups: naturally occurring sugar and added sugar. All carbohydrates we eat are metabolized into glucose, a simple carbohydrate that fuels every cell in our bodies.

Carbohydrates and naturally occurring sugar are found in a variety of foods like dairy products, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These foods are also packed full of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants that are good for us and help protect against disease.

Most of the added sugar in our diet is usually easy to identify. These include table sugar, honey, syrups, fruit juice and fruit-juice concentrates that are added to certain foods, such as cakes, cookies, ice cream, candy and – surprisingly – store-bought spaghetti sauce, granola bars and breakfast cereals, and drinks, including sodas, juices, energy drinks, sports drinks and lattes. A high intake of added sugar leads to weight gain, obesity and tooth decay.

So how much sugar is acceptable? There are no current recommendations for limiting natural sugar found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. However, the World Health Organization and Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults and children reduce their consumption of added sugar to less than 10 percent of their total daily calorie intake.

For someone who consumes 2,000 calories a day, this translates to 200 calories – or about 12 teaspoons of sugar – each day. The American Heart Association recommends an even smaller amount: around nine teaspoons per day for men and six for women. The Food and Drug Administration has recommended easier ways to track how much added sugar we eat each day. Beginning this year, added sugar will appear on packaged foods’ nutrition labels.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the nation’s health woes, but limiting added sugar may help. The way to help optimize health is to eat sensibly from all food groups to ensure adequate intake of a variety of nutrients. Not all carbohydrates are the same. We should consume more fruits and vegetables, and fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and desserts, and get plenty of exercise. Your health care provider or registered dietitian can help you achieve your diet and wellness goals and provide personalized recommendations that fit your lifestyle.