The Truth About Sugar: How Much Is Too Much

You’ve heard it over and over again: cut down on sugar, avoid foods with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, if sugar were invented today, it would be illegal because it’s so bad for you (OK, I’m paraphrasing here, but I do remember hearing that one). If you have taken these health warnings seriously and viewed them as something more than a challenge of your will-power, you’re not alone. According to a new study, Americans are getting better at reducing sugar—but still not good enough.

From 2000 to 2008, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that we have gone from consuming roughly 3.5 ounces of sugar a day (25 teaspoons) to 2.7 ounces a day (19 teaspoons). That’s the good news. The bad news is the American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons a day for women and nine for men. That’s problematic for most of us, particularly for anyone who consumes soda.

One can of Coke contains approximately nine teaspoons of sugar—an amount that has most of us exceeding our quota for the day. That explains why soda is the biggest contributor to added sugar in the American diet. Not surprisingly, this is followed by cake, cookies, sports drinks, candy and gum.

So are we supposed to succumb to a diet of water, fresh fruits, veggies, lean protein and whole grains each day? Ideally, yes, but realistically, no. Some sugar is still OK, and can actually act like comfort food, boosting your mental health. Besides, a life without any is harder than it appears.

As an experiment, I tried giving up sugar entirely from my diet for a month (this did not include foods with natural sugar like fruit). After the first few days, the physical cravings (like headaches) went away, but the psychological ones were much tougher to deal with. I often felt obsessed with finding something sugary at certain points in the day—especially following a meal when I had conditioned myself to almost always have something sweet. Kitchen cabinets were scoured for a possible Hershey Kiss that fell out of the bag or even chocolate chips on the baking shelf. I would call my husband begging him to bring home something—anything—with chocolate in it. I even tried sugar-free ice cream bars to help curb those cravings, but given my lactose intolerance, they were not an entirely good choice, either. In the end (when I wasn’t acting like a batshit crazy person), I discovered how satisfying a juicy, ripe mango or peach can be after dinner. That seemed to settle those urges down. Although I do keep eying that chocolate-chocolate cake every time I go to the grocery store. (Why do they have to put the bakery in a place where you are forced to walk by it?)

How about you? Would you be able to give up sugar from your diet?

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    • Kim Foster, MD

      Nope, I couldn’t possibly give up sugar entirely. But I happen to believe that you don’t need to. What’s more, I think if you attempt it, you’re probably going to end up with a mutiny on your hands. Just like you described (raiding cupboards, licking the insides of packages, full-on bingeing…). Not pretty. And not healthy.

      That said, reduction of sugar intake is a very good idea. Easier said than done, of course.

      (Check my post on this if you’re curious about my thoughts. Bittersweet: What to Do About Sugar http://wp.me/p1q6vt-6R )

      • Tom

        The real problem is that we are surrounded by sugar.

        My grandfather once told me that they put salt and sugar in foods to cancel each other out. These are both low cost fillers that equate to higher profits. The more processed the food the more of both.

        Foods that are grown, as opposed to those made by man, contain nutrients. Fruits contain natural sugars that are more easily metabolized. The next time you desire something sweet, eat a piece of fruit.

        If you make changes to your diet, such as replacing man made sweets with organically grown fruits, over the course of time, you can adapt to a healthier diet and maintain it long term. If more American’s were taught this in school obesity and heart disease would very likely decrease significantly.

    • Stephanie

      I’ve tried it before and it was a nice detox. Not easy, that’s for sure. But I would do it again, just to prove to myself that I could (weird self-discipline test?). As long as it doesn’t turn into you gorging on the thing you gave up and eating more of it than when you started, little detoxes like this seem harmless.

    • Deborah Hanamura

      I gave up sugar three weeks ago. I allow small amounts of agave nectar and honey as well as natural sugars such as the ones you described in fruit.

      I definitely don’t feel the sugar-induced peaks and valleys that I felt before, but the absence of a sensation isn’t quite as motivating as the presence of one; so despite this improvement I still find myself salivating over restaurant dessert menus.

      Overall I feel like this is the right thing to do, but damn. It’s tough. Thank god for summer fruit – cherries are my savior. What happens in November, though? HOW WILL I DO IT???? Agh. Need to stop thinking about it, actually.

      Thanks for the post – great stuff.

      • Briana Rognlin

        Way to go, Deborah! It’s so tough, but I think leveling off your energy levels and replacing all that sugar with more nutritious foods will really pay off in the long run.

        I try really hard to keep my sugars low, but of course it’s tough when there’s so much added sugar in foods that we don’t even consider sweet or indulgent. (this gallery is a good reminder for me: http://www.blisstree.com/eat/10-foods-you-didnt-know-contained-so-much-sugar/)

        Good luck in November. Personally, I don’t think it’s a sin to allow yourself a slice of pumpkin pie (I do a Turkey Trot every Thanksgiving morning AND I cook all day; I figure I deserve it!). But some people are more strict for personal or medical reasons, so we’ll be posting healthy recipes for the holidays and giving you some good ideas for low- or no-sugar desserts, so you don’t have to feel totally deprived all season!

        And when in doubt, leave a comment or question – we’re here to help!

        Thanks,
        Briana Rognlin
        (Editor-in-Chief)

    • adan

      my wife and i have worked our way for several years learning about what foods have in them, which are good (or better) for us, and adding, eliminating, and adjusting items as we learned -

      currently, sugar is our target ;-)

      btw, how many g of sugar are in a teaspoon? thanks!