According to Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor at the University of California San Francisco, Americans consume 450 calories of added sugar every day. In a commentary in the journal Nature, Lustig argues that such overconsumption is just as bad as excess alcohol consumption in its health effects.
Prof. Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, makes a similar case against excess sugar consumption in his new book, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease. You can listen to his recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air in which he discusses the idea of “mismatch diseases.”
At issue is how the modern diet has become filled with large quantities of highly processed foods that are fortified with added sugar. Added sugar refers to sweeteners—from cane sugar to brown rice syrup to high fructose corn syrup—that are added to foods. It is true that most foods contain their own naturally occurring sugars; but added sugars include those added beyond what occurs naturally. So when Lustig notes that the average American consumes over 450 calories of added sugar each day, that doesn’t include the intake of naturally occurring sugars (which are buffered by fiber and ingested along with other nutrients when eaten in the form of whole fruits and vegetables).
The problem is that we often don’t realize sugar is added to many of the foods we eat regularly. Take for instance the jar of pasta sauce in your cupboard. Check the ingredient list and you are likely to find sugar prominently listed. The same goes for the store bought salad dressing in your refrigerator and other items we don’t normally think of as being “sweets.” But the added sugars are there nonetheless; and those grams add up, contributing to health problems and detracting from optimal athletic performance.
To gain a better grasp on your own diet, take a one day “added sugar survey.” Over the course of a day, track the amount of added sugars in the foods you eat. This means for any food that comes in a can, jar or package you need to check the ingredient list and nutrition label to determine how much sugar has been added. Remember, naturally occurring sugars in whole foods, such as a banana or carrot, don’t count. But if the food has been prepared or packaged, be sure to check to see if any sugar has been added. That includes honey glazed ham, high fiber breakfast cereal, and energy bars. Depending upon how conscientious you currently are about the foods you eat, you may be surprised to learn how many items you eat contain added sugar.
The point is not to say that added sugar has no place in our diets. But if you are going to consume added sugar, it is nice to know how much, when, where and why you are consuming that added sugar. That way you can choose the occasions when you want to indulge and avoid chronic overconsumption. For example, a gel during a race, an energy bar during a long workout or even an occasional piece of cake may be appropriate. But do you really need added sugar in your salad dressing? If you are more aware of how to spot and avoid added sugars, you can take more control over your eating to optimize your health and performance.
I am often asked by athletes for suggestions on how to eat. In my view, eating healthy need not be a complex undertaking. Forget about counting calories and weighing foods, and simply eat according to a few basic principles. Michael Pollan sums these up well when he advises: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
To that mantra I would add a few additional details. Eat whole foods as much as possible while avoiding packaged and processed foods. Instead of that processed pasta, try a whole baked potato instead. And if you do eat pasta on occasion, make your own sauce–not only does it taste better but you avoid the added sugar in store bought sauces.
Bread is another processed food with added sugar that is easy to consume in excess. We often use bread as a vehicle for nut butters and sandwiches; but whole food alternatives can be used instead. Spread your nut butter on a banana or carrot; and instead of the usual sandwich, put your meat along with some whole veggies and nuts or seeds into a bowl of mixed greens.
Don’t shy away from healthy fats—avocados, flax seed oil, olive oil, etc. I like to make my own salad dressing by mixing together a squirt of brown mustard with olive oil, flax seed oil and balsamic vinegar—note that this provides a tasty dose of healthy fats customized to your liking without the added sugar of store bought dressings.
Eating too much becomes less of an issue as you move away from processed foods with added sugar and toward whole foods that include a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates. Your body will be able to better detect satiety and help you avoid overeating. Finally, remember to slow down and chew your food thoroughly. Enjoy the process of both preparing and consuming the food that drives your health and performance.
“Simply put, humans evolved to crave sugar, store it and then use it. For millions of years, our cravings and digestive systems were exquisitely balanced because sugar was rare. Apart from honey, most of the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate were no sweeter than a carrot. The invention of farming made starchy foods more abundant, but it wasn’t until very recently that technology made pure sugar bountiful. The food industry has made a fortune because we retain Stone Age bodies that crave sugar but live in a Space Age world in which sugar is cheap and plentiful.”
“…sugar dampens the suppression of the hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger to the brain. It also interferes with the normal transport and signalling of the hormone leptin, which helps to produce the feeling of satiety. And it reduces dopamine signalling in the brain’s reward centre, thereby decreasing the pleasure derived from food and compelling the individual to consume more.”