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How Too Much Sugar Affects Your Health

September 22, 2021

Do you have a sweet tooth? It turns out that a diet too high in sugar may cause even more problems than an increased risk of diabetes – and cavities.

a collection of sweet treats underneath a pile of sugar, in which the word "sugar" is written

The American Heart Association recommends that women limit extra sugar to no more than 100 calories per day (about 24 grams or six teaspoons) and that men consume no more than 150 calories per day (about 36 grams or nine teaspoons).  But the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of extra sugar each day, adding an additional 350 calories.

Eating fruits and vegetables that contain natural sugar is okay for most people because produce contains healthy fiber, important vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants. Naturally occurring sugars in dairy are also acceptable because these foods provide protein and calcium. But added sugar has no positive health effects. In fact, it can lead to some pretty significant health problems.

According to Mayo Clinic, a diet high in added sugar can set you up for:

  • Poor nutrition because you’re likely choosing sugary snacks or beverages instead of foods full of important nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
  • Weight gain due to extra (empty) calorie consumption, increasing your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
  • Elevated triglycerides, a type of fat in the bloodstream, and fat tissue. High levels can increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Cavities, as sugar promotes bacterial growth on your teeth which leads to decay. 

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports that consuming excess sugar can also lead to:

  • High blood pressure, which can lead to heart and vascular disease.
  • Problems with your liver’s metabolism, which can lead to fatty liver disease – a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.
  • Chronic inflammation due to the insulin response necessitated by elevated blood sugar. 

How to Reduce Sugar – and Your Risk of Disease 

You can make changes to your diet that greatly reduce your risk of chronic conditions stemming from sugar overload. First, talk to your doctor. If you already have diabetes or another condition, you may need to restrict some foods containing natural sugars, like high-glycemic fruits and vegetables. Eating less added sugar is a smart step for everyone, and many nutritional experts say reducing it can also lead to more energy, better sleep, clearer and younger-looking skin, and an easier ability to shed extra pounds.

Here are some simple tips for how to get started.  

1. Avoid or reduce your intake of these ingredients.  

 Check the nutrition label. These ingredients indicate added sugar:

  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Malt sugar
  • Molasses
  • Sugar molecules ending in “ose"” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose) 

2. Know your numbers.  

Total sugar is listed on nutrition labels, and “added sugar” can increasingly be found on those labels as well. It is listed in grams, but you also need to pay attention to the serving size. If a single baked good, beverage or other pre-packaged food is considered multiple servings, those grams of sugar can quickly add up. 

3. Limit the usual suspects. 

Some common foods and beverages contain the largest percentage of added sugar in the American diet. They include:

  • Soda, energy and sports drinks
  • Baked goods/desserts
  • Fruit drinks
  • Dairy desserts
  • Candy
  • Packaged cereals
  • Table sugar and honey
  • Sweetened tea
  • Breads
  • Syrups and toppings 

4. Swap with lower-sugar alternatives.  

 Reducing adding sugars in your diet can come down to some smart replacement strategies.

  • Choose water, unsweetened seltzer, unsweetened coffee and tea, or low-fat milk instead of soft drinks, sports drinks and sweetened caffeinated beverages. 
  • If you drink fruit juice, make sure it's 100%. But whole fruits and whole fruit smoothies are a better choice to retain fiber and vitamins. 
  • Opt for breakfast cereals with less sugar, or make your own oatmeal or granola.
  • Choose reduced-sugar syrups, jams, jellies or preserves or – better yet – use whole fruit as a sweet and satisfying topping.
  • Consider eating fruit for dessert instead of baked goods, ice cream or candy. 
  • If you buy canned fruit, look for options packed in water or 100% fruit juice.
  • Snack smarter with nutrient-rich and filling options like vegetables, fruits, cheese and whole-grain crackers, plain or low-sugar yogurts, and nuts and nut butters.

Learn more about the healthy dining options available at Embark

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