As we approach the holidays, we are faced with a seemingly endless supply of tempting sweets, desserts, and drinks. It’s no wonder we go to sleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads! Now is the time to take a deep breath and to fortify our resolve to stay strong and healthy, without dampening the joys of the upcoming season.
Sugar and health risks
Despite the effect of the euphoric feeling, also known as the “sugar high,” which is experienced immediately after indulging in a delicious sweet, there is a more sinister side of sugar consumption that simply should not be ignored. As a society, Americans are increasingly aware of the dangers of sugars, however consumption continues to be too high and has led to a number of health problems that have reached epidemic levels. There is no shortage of experts who continually remind us that sugar can be blamed, to some extent, for the following: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, tooth decay, macular degeneration, cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, hyperactivity. Sugar also accelerates aging and compromises our immune system, leaving us less able to fight infection.
Sugar is linked to chronic inflammation, which is increasingly viewed as the culprit behind today’s degenerative diseases. “Sugar and other refined carbohydrates appear to trigger a chemical reaction that creates pro-inflammatory compounds in the body,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Healthy Aging. Studies that link high sugar intake to increased inflammation in the body are troubling, says Mark Hyman, M.D., author of Ultrametabolism. “Chronic inflammation appears to play a role in heart disease, cancer, and many other major conditions,” he explains. “Anything that triggers inflammation — including sugar — also triggers disease.” (1)
Malnutrition is also a result of sugar consumption. In his 2011 book Eat to Live, Joel Fuhrmann, M.D., states that according to the USDA, “the average American now consumes an unbelievable 30 teaspoons of added sugar a day. That’s right, in one day… Since more than 40 percent of calories in the American diet are derived from sugar or refined grains, both of which are nutrient-depleted, Americans are severely malnourished.” Furhmann goes on, “the refined sugars cause us to be malnourished in direct proportion to how much we consume them. They are partially to blame for the high cancer and heart attack rates we see in America.” (2)
Robert Lustig, M.D., in his much-viewed YouTube video, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, has spent much of his time highlighting the dangers of sugar – particularly fructose – and has gone as far as calling it a poison. (3)
Over time, sugar consumption has risen dramatically in the standard American diet, often referred to as the SAD diet. In 1700, when sugar was not readily available and was consumed only by the wealthy, the average consumption was at approximately 4 pounds per year. In 1822, the average American ate the amount of sugar found in one of today’s 12-ounce sodas every 5 days. Now, we eat that amount every 7 hours. By 1900, that number had risen to 90 pounds per year, and in 2008, more than half of Americans consume a half-pound of sugar daily. That’s 180 pounds per year! (4,5)
But can we really eliminate sugar?
This is all quite sobering information and would make one at least attempt to reduce sugar consumption. Despite the fact that we may consider ourselves to be educated, rational and full of willpower, we often get seduced into ingesting too much. We are bombarded with marketing messages, our increasingly hectic schedules leave us with far less time to cook at home, and let’s face it, sweetened foods and drinks simply taste better.
The concept of total elimination is not quite realistic and often backfires in implementation. First, there is the issue of the dreaded binge. Geneen Roth, the author of numerous books on diets, has made the following proclamation: “For every diet there is an equal and opposite binge.” I think we can all attest to the validity of that statement! Second, in the quest to eliminate sugar altogether, we will probably go down a more harmful path and into the treacherous world of artificial sweeteners, which are widely considered to be more dangerous than sugar.
All things in moderation
In my challenging, yet rewarding journey of raising four children, I once viewed the world in clear terms of good vs. bad and black vs. white. As I continue to grow and evolve, particularly as a parent, I have tempered my stance and try to live by the centuries-old tenet of moderation.
In our family, we certainly do indulge in sweet treats, however we try to compensate and balance that in the vegetable category. “Crowding out” is a concept that we have also embraced; by filling up a little more on the healthy snacks, there is less room for the unhealthy ones, hence they get “crowded out.” Furthermore, when I absolutely must have something sweet, I indulge on a small square of organic, dark chocolate. The richness of the chocolate makes me feel like I have eaten something decadent, while certainly not going overboard. It is important to note, however, on the topic of artificial sweeteners, my black and white view of the world reigns supreme. I restrict all artificial sweeteners, as well as high fructose corn syrup to every extent possible.
As we enter the holiday season, I look forward to enjoying an occasional treat or drink. I make that decision consciously and try to remember that sugar stealthily enters the diet in ways that are often overlooked, such as specialty coffees, crackers, bread, peanut butter, tomato sauce, meats, soups and other processed foods, and of course, alcoholic drinks.
Here’s to Happy and Healthy Holidays!!