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Dangerously sweet: Why it’s time to sour on sugar

The more we learn about sugar, the clearer it is that it’s not good for our health. Research over the past decade shows that added sugar increases people’s risk for several chronic diseases.

Sugar overloads the liver, increasing fat cells in the blood stream and lowering good cholesterol. It also appears to raise blood pressure and increase inflammation. The higher an individual’s sugar intake, the higher their risk of heart disease.

Growing evidence suggests that fructose—the type of sugar found in table sugar, fruit, and high-fructose corn syrup—can be toxic to the liver, just like alcohol. When people eat whole fruit, the fiber in it balances out the sugar, slowing down the time it takes to eat the fruit and the body to process it. But with sugary drinks, treats, breads, and snacks, the body gets a big, pure dose of the sweet stuff. This can overwhelm the liver and lead to fat deposits around the belly and on internal organs. Some 31 percent of American adults and 13 percent of kids suffer from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, according to the University of California’s sugarscience site.

Sugar is also linked to diabetes, depression, and obesity. Researchers have even discovered evidence that sugar may cause changes in normal cells that lead them to turn cancerous. A 2012 study published in the scientific journal Cell Cycle found that when cancerous cells consumed glucose (a type of sugar), the healthy cells around them became malignant. The link between sugar and cancer is far from certain and more investigation is needed. However, there’s already enough evidence against sugar that doctors recommend everyone limit how much of it they eat.

Most Americans consume 17 teaspoons of sugar every day. Yet the American Heart Association suggests a healthier limit is 9 teaspoons a day for men, 6 teaspoons for women, and 3 to 6 teaspoons for children. Staying under these lower levels requires a thoughtful approach to eating. I recommend that families:

  • Drink water, reserving sweetened beverages like soda, fruit juice, cocoa, and lattes for special occasions
  • Read food labels carefully to avoid the hidden sugars found in flavored yogurts, breakfast cereals, and granola bars
  • Avoid processed snack items
  • Watch sugar-filled condiments like ketchup, barbecue sauce, teriyaki sauce, and salad dressings
  • Eat plenty of whole foods, including vegetables, fruit, lean proteins (such as beans, lentils, fish, and lean meat), and healthy fats (such as nuts and avocados)
  • Choose whole-grain carbohydrates (such as oatmeal, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-grain bread) and aim for reasonable serving sizes
  • Limit traditional desserts and opt for fresh fruit instead.

It can be overwhelming to overhaul an entire diet, so I suggest families make small, sustainable changes. Start by rethinking breakfast twice a week. Instead of snacking on chips, choose carrots and hummus for something crunchy. By making one change at a time, it’s possible to deliberately shift to healthier habits.

Dr. Robert Gonzales is a family medicine physician at Vancouver Clinic—Ridgefield. He has a special interest in preventive care and delights in educating people on how to stay healthy through the years.