Our opinion: The bitter truth about sweets


The World Health Organization issued new health guidelines Wednesday, recommending that adults eat less than six teaspoons of sugar a day if they want to avoid adverse health effects such as weight gain and tooth decay.

Six teaspoons of sugar, about 25 grams, is 90 calories, and the WHO is recommending people limit their consumption to between 5 and 10 percent of their daily energy intake.

"Obesity now affects half a billion people in the world, and it is on the rise in all age groups and particularly in low- and middle-income countries," said Francesco Branca, the WHO's director of nutrition for health and development, adding that free sugars were a key culprit in that epidemic.

Branca said the health effects that result from an over-consumption of sugar, fat and salt and a lack of exercise are comparable to smoking. Over-consumption of sugar can lead "to an unhealthy diet, weight gain and increased risk of non-communicable diseases (such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer)," according to the WHO.

High on the WHO's hit list is sugar-sweetened beverages, which increase overall energy intake and often reduce the intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories. Smitha Mundasad, BBC's health reporter, said the typical can of soda contains at least nine teaspoons of sugar. In Europe, wrote Mundasad, added sugar is often seen in the form of extra sucrose. Here in the United States, food manufacturers favor the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup.

"Sugar has become a readily accepted and at times almost unnoticed part of many everyday diets," wrote Mundasad. "For the last century, sugar has been added to an increasing number of foods -- from bread to salad dressings."

Those of us who can be found blocking the aisles of our local supermarkets staring at labels can attest to the fact that sugar is added to just about everything these days, and not where you might expect it.

That includes salad dressing, bread, salsa and other tomato-based products, yogurt, ketchup, frozen and dried fruits, peanut butter, granola and energy bars, frozen dinners, crackers, soy and almond milk and specialty coffee drinks.

Children are especially susceptible to sugar in their diets. Sugary drinks are the "alcohol of childhood," said Robert Lustig, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology. Yoni Freedhoff, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, told the Telegraph that sugar is used "as a means to pacify, entertain and reward children (and) has become normalized to the point that questioning our current sugary status quo often inspires anger and outrage."

Fruit juice and breakfast cereal are two of the most insidious delivery mechanisms of sugar to children. Even without sugar added, fruit juice has about the same amount of sugar as a soda pop. And in 2011, the Environmental Working Group checked the content of 84 cereals and concluded one cup of Kellogg's Honey Snacks has more sugar than a Twinkie. In fact, 56 percent of its calories came from sugar. Other cereals that approached or crossed the 50-percent threshold included Post Golden Crisp, Froot Loops, Cap'n Crunch and Apple Jacks. Even so-called "healthy" cereals have an over-abundance of sugar.

If you are feeding your children a sugary breakfast of cereal and fruit juice, you might as well be giving them a drug first thing in the morning.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, writing for the Huffington Post, noted that "The results of one study showed that a greater neurological reward was provided by intense sweetness than by the drug cocaine. Similar findings occur when we look at withdrawal from sweets as well, indicating that getting off sugar may cause the same neurological symptoms as withdrawing from nicotine, morphine and alcohol."

Are you or is someone you love addicted to sugar? asked the Telegraph's Victoria Lambert.

"Do you struggle to walk past a sugary treat without taking just one? Do you have routines around sugar consumption -- for example, always having pudding, or needing a piece of chocolate to relax in front of the television? Are there times when you feel as if you cannot go on without a sugar hit? If you are forced to go without sugar for 24 hours, do you develop headaches and mood swings? If you answered 'yes' to one of the questions above, you are addicted."

How do you kick the habit?

Eat more whole fruits and milk; exercise on a daily basis; get more and better sleep and keep healthy snacks in the car and at your desk.

Experts also advise that you just say no to fat-free foods.

"Why? Because manufacturers are selling you on the fact that the product is fat-free -- not sugar-free," wrote Kirkpatrick.

Want one simple way to cut down on sugar? Instead of reaching for the sweetened beverage, drink water instead. If you argue that water doesn't give you that "pick-me-up" that sugar gives you, it might be because you are caught in a cycle of ups and downs caused by sugar itself. You have to break the habit to recover from it.

We will admit, it's not easy to pass up an easy breakfast of cereal and juice, or walk past the pastry in the supermarket without snagging something, but we must always keep in mind that the "food industry" is not really interested in helping you maintain a healthy weight; it's most interested in padding its bottom line.

And it's not only the food industry that is reaping the bonanza of our sugar addiction. It's also the health care industry. Millions of people are suffering from diet-related afflictions -- from diabetes to cancer to obesity to heart conditions to even organ failure -- which are the primary drivers of our out-of-control health care costs.

If you're not quite willing to boot sugar out of your diet on your own behalf, think about the children. We are role models. If they see us sucking down a Big Gulp or chomping on a candy bar or stuffing a glazed doughnut in our mouths, chances are they will follow in our footsteps. With so many of us struggling with our weight, maybe we can help ourselves by helping the smallest, most vulnerable among us.


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