By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
I’m sure that the issue of high dietary sugar intake is no surprise to any of my readers, but the fact that I am treating early signs of blood sugar regulation diseases in my practice every day tells me that although the message is heard, it may not be translating in a significant enough dietary change.
Recent medical research has confirmed over and over again that the obesity epidemic stems largely from the amount of sugar we eat and drink, rather than from dietary fats. In fact, the low-fat dietary changes since the 1980’s are very much to blame for our sugar additions today. As soon as you take the fat out of a food, it no longer tastes very good, so food manufacturers add more sugar to their products.
Canadians are not far behind Americans in their sugar intake. According to dietary intake surveys from the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) 2015, consumption of total sugars in Canada was 101 grams for children aged 2 to 8, 115 grams for children aged 9 to 18, and 85 grams for adults.
What happens in the body with too much sugar?
When you eat a large amount of sugar at once, you overload the liver first which results in too much glycogen. Next the pancreas releases insulin to deal with this excess. Insulin is a hormone that tells the body to store fat. The more insulin produced, the more fat storage takes place.This is where there is so much misunderstanding. It is sugar intake that causes fatty liver and high triglycerides (fat in the blood), not dietary fat intake!
If overeating sugar happens day after day, the body will eventually become ‘insulin resistant’, meaning that the insulin response is chronically turned on causing the body to store fat very rapidly, and also crave sugar and simple carbohydrates even more. This is the phase where significant dietary intervention is needed, in order to prevent future diabetes and other chronic disease. In the clinic, I usually diagnose insulin resistance at a time where my patients have rapidly gained a lot of weight – for example 20-30 pounds in two or three years.
How much sugar is too much?
A healthy guideline is to limit your sugar intake to no more than 25 grams per day (not including fresh fruits). This is close to the estimate of how much sugar our grandparents or great-grandparents would have eaten before packaged and processed foods became mainstream. If you start reading labels, you will find that this is very difficult to do if you include any packaged foods in your diet. We are omitting the sugar present in fruits, as long as you are not eating more than 2 or 3 servings per day. Juices however, do count in your grams of sugar calculation along with everything in a package – milk alternatives, yogurts, cookies, pastries, pasta sauce, granola bars, etc.
My challenge to you is to take one week and add up your sugar intake – what changes do you need to make to lower your sugar to less than 25 grams now?
These small changes can make an enormous impact in disease prevention: diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even cancer.
Some surprising (and not surprising) foods containing sugar:
I have chosen some of the really bad culprits like pop, but also foods that many of my patients eat regularly, just to make a point about how difficult it can be to limit sugar intake. Remember, a healthy daily limit maxes out at 25 grams!
- Medium Tim Hortons Coffee – double double: 22 grams
- Tall skinny vanilla late at Starbucks: 13 grams
- Almond milk (1 cup): 7 grams
- Orange juice (1 cup): 21 grams
- Kiju Organic – apple juice box (200 mL): 18 grams
- Vitamin Water (1 bottle, 591 mL): 31 grams
- Gatorade (355 mL): 21 grams
- Coca Cola (355 mL can): 39 grams
- Pepsi (1 bottle, 591 mL): 69 grams
- Liberté Coconut Mediterranée Yogurt (170 gram container): 24 grams
- Liberté French Vanilla Mediterranée Yogurt (170 gram container): 29 grams
- Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bar: 12 grams
- Cliff Bar – chocolate chip: 18 grams
- Skinny Cow – chocolate truffel bar: 14 grams
- Starbucks Bran Muffin: 23 grams
- Starbucks Blueberry Scone: 17 grams
- Prego Traditional Pasta Sauce (1/2 cup only): 12 grams
How do we reverse this?
The most basic way to reverse this is to pay attention to what you are eating. Minimize processed and packaged foods, and most importantly cook at home. Awareness is key – watch what you eat and where added sugar is hiding. The less sugar you eat, the less you will crave.
A special note about children’s foods:
One of the most important areas to make change is in children’s foods. It is shocking how much sugar most children are eating from a very young age! Did you see the numbers above?? Children between the age of 9 and 18 ingesting an enormous 115 grams of sugar per day. Think about cereals, cookies, granola bars, juice boxes on a daily basis, and then add special occasions like birthday parties, Halloween and Easter on top of it! When we actually look at the sugar, it’s not surprising that we have so many overweight children and also early puberty.
Here are a few simple tips to start early with your children:
- In the early days, start baby food introduction with vegetables and fruits rather than sweet, creamy cereals. Use this opportunity to introduce your baby to to real food.
- Teach your children early on that treats are only given occasionally.
- Minimize juice consumption, and if you give juice at all dilute it significantly with water.
- Teach older children about nutrition and how to read labels. Involve your whole family in getting healthy.
- Have more family meals – meals where families cook at home and eat together are almost always healthier.
- Avoid the kids menu when eating out – you won’t find anything healthy here!
I hope this short article has motivated you to lower your sugar intake now! So much needs to be done in response to the food industries standards, and one of the most powerful things you can do is to choose what you eat at each meal carefully. Start reading labels, and as much as possible cook whole, real foods.
I would highly encourage you to start reading labels, and take a look at the hidden sugar that is creeping into your diet, even if it looks like you are making healthy choices. I honestly believe that occasional treats, and getting pleasure from the foods we eat is a priority, but what this means is that your overall baseline sugar intake has to come down. If you are eating mostly whole foods – vegetables, fruits, proteins, grains, root vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats and oils, an occasional deliciously rich dessert is not going to have a negative impact on your health.
If you need more support to deal with your sugar cravings, or the impact of eating too much sugar over time, please ask! We can address strategies to reduce cravings – balance the gut microbiome, reduce insulin levels, improve sleep quality, and support neurotransmitter balance. All of these strategies can make this endeavor significantly easier to achieve.
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