on February 17th, 2015 4 Comments
Here’s a shocking statistic: On average, Americans consume three pounds of sugar each week, or 3,550 pounds in an entire lifetime. This leads some to blame the sweet stuff for the increase of chronic disease in modern society. But simply reducing our sugar intake is easier said than done, in part because identifying foods with added sugars can be tricky.
This Thursday, Alison Ryan, a clinical dietician with Stanford Health Care, will deliver an in-depth talk on sugar and our health as part of a Stanford Health Library lecture series. Those unable to attend can watch the presentation online here.
In the following Q&A, Ryan discusses the controversies surrounding sugar and the role of sugar in our diet, and she offers tips for making sure your consumption doesn’t exceed daily guidelines.
Why does our body need sugar?
Sugar, in the form of dextrose or glucose, is the main fuel or energy source for the cells of the human body. Without glucose, our body has to get creative and rely on other metabolic pathways, like ketosis, to keep our brain and other organs running. There is an optimal range for our blood sugar levels, and our bodies are making constant efforts to keep blood sugar within this range.
Our body can make glucose from any carbohydrate that is consumed, so consuming monosaccharide (glucose and the like) is not biologically required. This is one of the reasons it’s difficult to determine the right amount of sugar that is required for the human body. Do we think of the optimal amount as the amount needed to function at peak level? Or an amount not to go over in order to avoid detrimental effects on our health?
Sugar intake has been on the rise in human diets. Why do you think that is?
At one time, sugar used to be a seldom available food item. It is now ubiquitous and more of a hallmark for highly processed, low nutritional value foods. Now, consider the food industry and the politics of sugar. Soda companies, makers of desserts, cakes, sugary snack foods, the sugar and corn syrup refiners all lobby to keep their products “part of a balanced diet.” The food industry is deeply involved (or at least vocal about) the food and nutrition guidelines in the U.S. Then there’s the reality that sugar tastes good! Most people enjoy the taste of sweet foods and are drawn to consuming them.
What are some of the health risks of consuming too much sugar?
Sugar has been implicated as playing a role in some obvious ways, like obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay; but also in less direct appearing ways such as heart disease, chronic inflammatory conditions, cancer, etc. Often, when we’re consuming foods high in sugar, we’re not consuming foods that are rich in nutrients. These calorie-dense foods displace the nutrient-dense foods. The net effect is higher intake of calories, with concurrent lower intake of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, protein, etc.