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The Skinny on Sugar

Calories in, calories out. That’s the old rule of thumb about what it takes to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight – just burn as much or more energy than you consume.

But not all calories are created equal. A growing body of medical research is proving that the type of calories you consume impacts your health, your weight, and your quality of life.

The biggest culprit is sugar. It’s not the bad fats we talked about in our macronutrients post last week, but sugar.

A couple of years ago, researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who get 10 to 25 per cent of their daily calories from sugar increase their risk of cardiovascular problems by 30 per cent.

The World Health Organization has recommended that people aim to limit their consumption of added sugar to five per cent of their total caloric intake. For an average adult diet of 2,000 calories, that’s only 100 calories (25 grams).

What does that look like? It takes 6.25 teaspoons of white sugar out of the bowl to equal 100 calories.

Is sugar a poison?

Overconsumption of sugar sparks a vicious cycle in your body that can increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and premature death.

It’s an established fact that occurrences of these lifestyle-related illnesses all track up in countries that adopt diets comparable to the sugar-rich diets typical in Canada and the U.S.

Research led by Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist who asserts that sugar in any form is a poison, has found that cutting out added sugars can improve biomarkers associated with health in as little as 10 days — even when overall calorie count and percentage of carbohydrates that make up your diet remains the same.

There is no such thing as a ‘good’ sugar

Most people understand this in principle, but fail to appreciate just what a sugar is.

“Sugar” includes white table sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, turbinado, maple syrup, molasses, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, the fructose found in fruit, and the lactose found in dairy milk.

Of these, high-fructose corn syrup is the most insidious. It’s packed into just about everything bought packaged from the grocery store, from breakfast cereals to desserts and even those supposedly “wholesome” whole grain breads.

Just because it’s in a fruit or glass of milk doesn’t make it OK

Many people want to believe that fructose, the natural sugar found in fruit, is OK, because they are, well, natural. But just about every sugar is derived from a natural source. Fruit juices, even “100% fruit juice” can be almost as bad for sugar as a soft drink. The source of the sugar does not matter – it will have the same negative impact on your body.

Health Canada appears to have woken up to this fact and is likely to drop fruit juice from the Canada Food Guide as a suggested way to get the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Most Canadian healthcare professionals welcome such a change.

The lactose found in milk is, again, a bad sugar. In fact, studies have suggested that milk’s contribution to diabetes and obesity due to its natural sugar content outweigh the benefits from the nutrients it contains. If you want your calcium, eat your leafy greens.

How much sugar is in your food?

Let’s go back to that World Health Organization recommendation that adults cut their daily intake of added sugar to only 100 calories, or 6.25 teaspoons. A teaspoon of sugar is four grams.

Let’s look at some food labels and do the math:

Have some cereal:

  • Regular plain Cheerios, one cup serving without milk: 1.2 grams of sugar (0.3 tsp)
  • Honey Nut Cheerios, one cup serving without milk: 9 grams (2.25 tsp)
  • Add the milk, one cup, 2%: 12 grams (3 tsp)

A bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with a cup of milk already puts you only one teaspoon of sugar away from your daily max.
Make a sandwich:

  • Two slices, Wonderbread whole wheat sandwich bread: 4 grams (1 tsp)

Eat a snack:

  • One medium-sized apple: 19 grams (almost 5 tsp)
  • One medium-sized orange: 12 grams (3 tsp)
  • One cup, Tropicana Pure Premium Orange Juice: 23 grams (almost 6 tsp). Compare that to one cup of Coca-Cola: 27 grams (almost 7 tsp)

You get the idea, and we haven’t even looked at the obvious sources of added sugar, like candy bars, cakes, pies, energy bars, and condiments like barbecue sauce and ketchup.

It’s not just about the risk of a life-threatening illness

Cutting back the sugar just makes you feel better.

Eating a cleaner diet that’s focused on whole fresh foods and avoiding packaged foods that, in addition to added sugar, are also packed with salt, bad fats, and various artificial additives makes a difference.

You’re likely to have more energy, a better mood, and be more productive through the day. You might even lose some weight, improve your complexion, and look younger.

It all starts with understanding what you are eating and paying attention to those nutrition labels – sugar is sneaky, it can lurk where you least expect it.

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