Cutting sugar from your diet: How low should you go?

How low (sugar) should you go?

How low (sugar) should you go?

Do you have a sugar problem? For most of us, the answer is yes.

The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day. Well above the 6 teaspoons upper limit for women, or 9 teaspoons limit for men that the American Heart Association recommends, or the 10 percent of daily calories that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advocates as the upper limit. Sugar is added to many foods, and staying within this limit isn’t easy. One can of regular soda already exceeds a child’s daily allowance.

The reason these upper limits were suggested by the American Heart Association as well as the World Heath Organization is that studies show that high consumption of added sugar, especially in sugary drinks, is associated with increased risk of heart disease, metabolic disorders and type 2 diabetes.

A new study in the American Journal of clinical Nutrition set out to examine the link between added sugars and mortality. The researches, led by Stina Ramne, looked at two Swedish cohorts, which together included about 50,000 people. The dietary information collected considered and registered all types of sugars and highly sweetened foods, such as sugary drinks, pastries, ice cream, jams, candy and chocolate.

The lowest mortality was among those consuming 7.5-10 percent of calories from added sugar – the common recommended allowance.

Eating 20 percent of daily calories as added sugar was associated with a 30 percent greater risk of death.

How low (sugar) should you go?

Surprisingly, the lower end of sugar consumption – those eating less than 5 percent of calories as added sugar– were also at higher risk of dying.

When looking at the different sugar sources, sugary drinks were clearly linked with early death. Treats, such as cookies and cakes were not – they were actually inversely associated with bad outcomes.

This study joins many others in showing a clear link between sugar in liquid form, and bad outcomes. The solid forms of added sugar – dessert and chocolates for instance – are not linked to obesity and disease in the same way, perhaps because although these are more calorically dense than soda, they satisfy hunger and ‘register’ in our body as food.

What could explain the higher mortality rate among those eating almost no added sugar? It could be a mistake in reporting; it could be that people who eat very little sugar are avoiding it because they already have an underlying illness necessitating abstinence. It also could be that enjoying a coffee and pastry break is a custom enjoyed by people who have social connections and is otherwise associated with healthy lifestyles.

This association has been shown before. In the NIA-AARP Diet and Health Study, which included about 350,000 Americans, people who consume very high and very low added sugars were at higher risk of death. This might be another hint that there’s great wisdom in moderation, and no reason to deduce that if less sugar is better none is best. Never-do-it is the proven recommendation for some behaviors, such as cigarette smoking, but not for sugar. In many health habits, the dose makes the poison.

Doing something for your wellbeing this new year doesn’t need to entail a full diet reset – just a few tweaks will do the trick, and a good target is sugar reduction.

You don’t need to declare Sugar-Free-January, or go full Keto to enjoy the benefits of a reduced sugar diet, nor do you need to suffer the deprivation – and to me personally, the cruel punishment of – complete dessert abstinence.

Easiest places to cut sugar

The easiest sugar-reduction target is also the most important: sugary drinks.

There’s no other food that is as clearly linked with overweight, obesity and chronic diseases as soda and sweetened beverages. Sugary drinks are also the largest contributor of added sugar in the American diet, they practically add nothing but empty calories, and there’s something unique about drinking your calories – drinking calories bypasses satiety and appetite controls, causes spikes in blood sugar and metabolic mayhem.

Another easy target is salad dressing. Making your own will upgrade your salad, save you money and cut added sugar. The basic salad dressing is very simple: 2/3 oil (extra virgin olive oil, or any other vegetable oil/s you like) 1/3 acid (balsamic or any vinegar, lemon juice etc.) add to that any flavoring you like (fresh herbs, garlic, mustard), and just a drop of sweetness from agave or honey for balance.

A third good target is breakfast. Sweetened cereal (Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes), sweet yogurt, morning pastries and pancakes are really a dessert, a treat. Nothing wrong with sweet treats every once in a while, but there are better ways to start the weekday.

Dr. Ayala