There is no way to sweeten this dietary reality: We are eating too much sugar.
On average, Americans eat about 17 teaspoons of added sugar every day, which adds up to 57 pounds a year, researchers say.
The American Heart Association recommends added sugar should be limited to about 9 teaspoons a day for men and 6 teaspoons for women and children. That’s 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women.
Sugar is commonly associated with diabetes and obesity, but experts say excess consumption has been linked to a plethora of health issues, including heart disease and certain cancers.
Although the evidence may not be conclusive, health groups continue to encourage lower sugar intake.
In its first major revision of food labels in two decades, the Food and Drug Administration is requiring all manufacturers to specify added sugar amounts on the nutrition labels. The largest manufacturers, with $10 million or more in annual food sales, must use the new labels by January 2020. Smaller companies have until January 2021.
Other changes in the new label include a larger print for total calories, the removal of the “calories from fat” designation and tweaks in serving sizes that the FDA says reflect actual consumption.
“The reason why they are doing this is that added sugar increases the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes,” Konstantinos “Dino” Panitsas, research project manager, said at 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health in Johnstown.
More than a million Pennsylvanians have been diagnosed with diabetes, and an estimated 3.5 million more are at risk of developing the disease.
The Jefferson Center called diabetes the Cambria-Somerset region’s No. 1 health priority.
“Obesity is increasing in prevalence,” Panitsas said. “Sugars also affect heart disease.”
The center is raising awareness of sugar intake as part of its overall mission to improve health throughout the region.
Nursing instructor Desiree Beppler tries to reinforce the issue with her students at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson. Talking about sugar consumption is especially important when working in pediatrics, where children are developing nutrition habits for life, she said.
“The biggest take-away for my students is that we are consuming enormous amounts of sugar – especially our children,” Beppler said at the college. “Many children have double the recommended 6 teaspoons a day.”
Teens are often tripling the recommended intake, she added.
It is not just the number of calories that’s the problem, Beppler says.
Sugar calories are not the same as other nutrients.
“Sugar calories are taking away from the good nutrients,” she said. “When you eat protein-rich foods, the body isn’t absorbing those protein-rich foods correctly because of the sugar-laden calories.”
Table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are among the most common sugars added to foods.
Both contain 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. Starchy foods, including whole grains, contain natural carbohydrates that are broken down to glucose.
Glucose moves through the bloodstream, is easily used by cells throughout the body and is the main source of energy for exercise and movement.
Fructose, on the other hand, has to go through the liver to be turned into fat or a stored carbohydrate compound known as glycogen before the cells can use it. The body is not designed to handle too much fructose, experts say.
“It has to do with the way foods are digested and get into the bloodstream,” said Laura Michaels, assistant science professor at Mount Aloysius. “Sugars are initiating an insulin response. Your body is breaking things down, and it triggers the insulin to come out of your pancreas.”
As blood sugar levels rise, the insulin allows the body’s cells to absorb the sugar and use it for energy. Because fructose gets into the blood so easily, it can create spikes in the release of insulin.
Michaels calls it a “teeter-totter” effect, as the blood sugar levels rise and drop. A more steady level of metabolism is better for one’s health, with proteins and complex carbohydrates from whole grains evening out the insulin and sugar levels.
“It takes longer to get into the blood stream and illicit the insulin response from the carbohydrates,” Michaels said.
Reducing the teeter-totter effect can also help reduce total calorie intake because when bloods sugar levels drop, the body releases hormones that make you feel hungry.
Slowing sugar absorption by eating complex carbohydrates can reduce hunger feelings.
Jane Maslonik, a certified diabetes educator and adjunct instructor at St. Francis University in Loretto, says fiber is another line to check on food labels.
Fiber is found in whole grains and many fruits and vegetables. Although it is a carbohydrate, fiber cannot be broken down by the body and helps regulate the body’s sugar levels, reducing the teeter-totter effect.
“When our blood sugar comes down, we feel hungry,” Maslonik said. “Fiber slows down the absorption rate of the carbohydrates.”
The National Institute of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health recommends that men eat 30 to 38 grams of fiber a day, and women should get 25 grams of fiber.
“Most people don’t get even half of that,” Maslonik said.
‘Rainbow of colors’
Maslonik says the new FDA labels will help people who want to eat more balanced, nutritious diets while avoiding the insulin spikes from added sugar.
“I think one of the good things that comes out of the labels is that people don’t have a good handle on the naturally occurring sugar, versus the added sugar,” she said. “They are going to know that now. And the calories are all big on those labels. That will be a good thing to pay attention to.”
While it’s a good idea to read labels, Michaels tells students in her nutrition classes that everyone’s body is different.
“Nothing in nutrition is ‘bad,’ ” Michaels said.
“It is a question of how it reacts with your body. That’s why not everybody develops diabetes.”
Reducing the amount of added sugars in the diet helps people enjoy natural flavors again, she said.
“When people think about nutrition, they actually can eat more,” Michaels said. “Don’t think of it as a substitute.”
The best diet includes a variety of foods, trying fruits and vegetables, she said.
“Eat the rainbow of colors,” Michaels said. “You will start enjoying your food again. You are going to experience the whole, wide world of food again.”