A month without sugar

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Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Published: 2/11/2019 3:57:23 PM

My 2-year-old dips everything — even broccoli — in ketchup. After she recently finished an entire bottle, I was shopping for more when I noticed some brands touting “reduced sugar.”

That’s when it hit me: Ketchup has sugar in it. Probably way too much. No wonder it helps the broccoli go down. But I wondered, is sugar so bad for her? For me? For all of us?

Too much of it certainly is, doctors say. Some are even calling it “toxic,” pointing to evidence that its overconsumption is linked to serious health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and liver disease.

It’s shockingly easy to consume way, way too much sugar without realizing it. We know we’re eating sugar when we grab a doughnut or a cookie. But it’s also a major ingredient in packaged breads, pasta sauces, salad dressings, chicken stocks, yogurts and condiments from ketchup to Sriracha.

Often, if a product is labeled “low-fat,” it’s full of sugar instead.

Taking a break from sugar is one way to take stock of your intake and perhaps make some healthy changes to your diet. The goal is to cut out added sugar. Not just the stuff we dump in our coffee, but all the different syrups and sweeteners added to packaged foods.

A University of North Carolina survey found that 68 percent of all packaged supermarket products have added sugar, leading many shoppers to essentially serve up dessert not as a treat but as each course of every meal. And while the American Heart Association advises men to consume no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar a day, women to curtail their intake to six teaspoons and kids to have even less, the average American downs 17 teaspoons, according to federal estimates.

Added sugar is what has doctors worried, not the naturally occurring sugars in fresh fruits and unflavored dairy products. When sugars are naturally combined with fiber, nutrients or fat, we metabolize them differently (we also consume less sugar because we feel fuller faster).

The latest research suggests that when our body gets too much of sugar’s fructose too quickly, we convert it to a kind of fat that’s especially damaging.

“It’s a very highly inflammatory type of fat tissue, it’s not healthy fat tissue, and it secretes a lot of inflammatory substances that circulate in the blood,” explained Dr. Samar Malaeb, an endocrinologist with the University of Minnesota. This leads to insulin resistance, chronic inflammation and the deposition of cholesterol in the arteries, she said. That’s where heart disease comes in.

A sugar-free movement has been on the rise for several years, with books like Gary Taubes’ “The Case Against Sugar,” which compares sugar to tobacco. There also are cautionary documentaries, including “That Sugar Film,” in which Australian Damon Gameau downed 40 teaspoons a day for 60 days. Even though he maintained his activity level and caloric intake, within three weeks he gained weight and developed fatty liver disease.

Michelle Obama took on the issue as first lady and the Food and Drug Administration created a new line for “added sugar” in its nutrition label template. (It’s set to be fully phased in by 2021.)

Nutritionist Brooke Alpert described sugar as “the new controlled substance” when she co-wrote “The Sugar Detox” a few years ago. She advises taking a sugar “break” or a “reset” just to make people aware of the added sugar in everyday choices, from coffee with vanilla syrup (more than 3 teaspoons) to a Moscow mule cocktail (more than 5 teaspoons).

A sugar break “brings an awareness,” she said, “and then you’re able to use that awareness” to choose if and when to consume sugar. Studies have shown that cutting out sugar for just two weeks can improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

A few decades ago, nutritionists advised us to avoid fat and count calories and the food industry responded with products like Snackwells cookies, Pam spray oil and low-fat flavored yogurts loaded with sugar.

Now, we seek out “healthy fats” and the idea of counting calories in and calories out is outdated, said Leslie Branham, a personal trainer.

“It’s really about the quality of the foods you’re putting into your body,” she said. “We are what we eat, and it’s no joke.”

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