Experts Now Say, "It's the Sugar, Stupid"
March 12, 2003 ---
For years, dietary experts -- some with the zeal reminiscent of
Temperance Union Crusaders -- pointed at fat as the root of all
As it turned out,
cutting the fat did not prove to be the magic bullet experts hoped
it would be.
Millions of people who have diligently reduced their fat intake are
still, well, fat — which has left experts looking for other possible
factors besides fat.
As it turned out, the other culprit literally turned out to be right
under their very noses as they reached past it every morning for
their first cup of hot java — sugar.
“Everybody’s worried about fat, and they’re pursuing low-fat and
even no-fat diets,” says Dr. Robert Keith, an Alabama Cooperative
Extension System nutritionist. “But researchers began to realize
that many people who were taking fat out of their diets were
replacing it with sugar — for example, cookies that were free of
fats but loaded in sugar and calories.”
“The problem is that with sugar, you’re getting a very large number
of calories with a comparatively small volume of food. And we know
that calories do count.”
“A tablespoon of sugar, for example, contains between 50 and 60
calories but very little else from the standpoint of nutritional
content. A 12-ounce nondiet soft drink will have 3 tablespoons of
sugar — totaling between 150 and 180 calories with no other
That explains why many experts are now recommending that people
limit their sugar intake, though these recommendations vary
depending on who is making them. The World Health Organization
advises restricting sugar consumption to 10 percent of daily
calories, while the National Academy of Sciences advises limiting it
to 25 percent.
Those who should be especially careful to limit their intake are
obese, sedentary people, especially those with serious blood lipid
problems and people who have type II (adult-onset) diabetes. A
recent study, for example, in which subjects were fed 28 percent of
their calories from sugar during a 10-week period turned up
increases in body weight and blood pressure.
“Obviously, you don’t need lots of sugar if you already have
diabetes,” Keith says. “But even borderline diabetics who already
suffer from some insulin resistance should limit their intake.”
Unfortunately, reducing this intake isn’t as easy as it seems.
“You’d be surprised at just how much hidden sugar they put in some
food products,” Keith says.
“Depending on what you
typically buy at the grocery store, you could end up staying well
below the World Health Organization’s recommended 10 percent or
vastly exceeding it.”
Canned pork and beans, ketchup and children’s cereals are products
that typically contain hidden or added sugar. Others that tend to be
high in sugar include table syrup (one of the most concentrated
sources of sugar), nondiet soft drinks, pie fillings and canned
fruit in heavy syrup.
Also, it’s important to remember that the sugar in these products
can be listed under different names on the label, including sucrose,
dextrose and corn syrup, he adds.
Despite the concerns associated with sugar, Keith says it’s
important that people do not throw out the proverbial baby with the
bath water. Sugar, in some cases, serves a very useful purpose,
especially in cases where parents are trying to interest children in
more nutritional foods.
“Some kids, for example, just won’t eat plain whole-grain cereal,
even though it’s a very nutritious product,” he says. “So, adding a
little sugar to encourage a child to eat it, especially with milk,
is a good thing.”
“Just remember that whole-grain cereals are an exception rather than
a rule as far as children are concerned and that many children’s
cereal products are made up of 50 to 60 percent sugar.”
Also, Keith says, there usually is no harm in physically active
athletes supplementing their diet with some sugar – especially in
cases where their bodies are burning up calories faster than they
can replace them.
“If an athlete who expends lots energy consumes 4,000 calories a
day, but still needs about 1,000 more calories to maintain peak
performance, there may be a need for some sugar to maintain this
energy,” he says.
“In most cases, athletes won’t be adversely affected, simply because
they’re burning so many calories.”
Still, that leaves the millions of Americans who are sedentary and
overweight – the sorts of people who, because of their sedentary
lifestyles, require only about 2,500 calories a day and for whom
limiting dietary sugar should be a major health consideration.
“If you need only about 2,500 calories a day and 800 of these come
from sugar, you’re left with only a small pool of calories from
which to derive the nutrients you’ll need to stay healthy. Consuming
a concentrated source of calories makes it much easier to exceed
your daily caloric needs and contributes to weight gain.”
(Source: Dr. Robert Keith,
Alabama Cooperative Extension System Nutritionist and Auburn
University Professor of Food and Nutrition, 334-844-3273.)
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