An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Sugar: The Scary Truth

Uncovering the facts about the sweet substance we love

At risk of being the Grinch who stole Halloween, perhaps we should rethink a holiday built around candy. 

Even without that annual fix, we’re already sugar junkies, as the average American consumes 22.4 teaspoons (94 grams) every day. Worst offenders are teens, with about 34 teaspoons of the sweet stuff daily, says a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

And pound by pound, we’re killing ourselves. The resulting obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease, inactivity and possibly dementia, report experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

“Thanks to obesity, our kids are expected to have shorter life spans than their parents,” says Shreela Sharma, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., associate professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health and faculty member at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. “We’re in a health crisis.”

The American Heart Association suggests daily sugar intake levels of 9 teaspoons, or 150 calories, for men and 6 teaspoons, or 100 calories, for women. The suggested daily intake of sugar for children should be no more than 6 teaspoons depending on age and caloric needs.

What lures us to the white side?

Sugar is so vital that while the body finds candy dandy, it also welcomes and converts all carbohydrates — including starches such as bread, pasta, rice, crackers and chips — into glucose. When sugar enters the blood to be used by your body, you feel revved up.

“We all need sugar to survive. It’s our body’s primary energy source,” Sharma says.

Unneeded glucose is diverted to your internal gas tanks — muscles and the liver — to be stored until needed. But just as a car’s gas tank can overflow, so can your muscle and liver reserves. The excess winds up in your fat cells — which, alas, have limitless capacity.

Meanwhile, your pancreas tries to keep your blood sugar on an even keel by releasing its own balancing act, the hormone insulin. This sets in motion a more effective way for your muscles and liver to absorb glucose.

But the more sugar you eat, the more your body must react. With time, worn cells fail to respond to insulin, which only makes the body secrete more, says Heinrich Taegtmeyer, M.D., D.Phil., professor of cardiovascular medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth

“Too much sugar is too much of a good thing, definitely for the heart,” Taegtmeyer says. “The heart muscle is not able to handle the sugar rush as well as other organs. With few ways to stash the extra fuel, the unused sugar feeds heart muscle cells. They do grow, only the new material is weaker. Sugar coats proteins — cells’ basic workhorses — making them function poorly. This leads to a weakened heart, blindness, poorly functioning kidneys and an increased chance of dementia.”

At the same time, our caloric candy crush moves from our lips to our hips. Almost 40 percent of American adults are obese, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And kids are catching up, with almost 19 percent reported as obese.

The obese have high blood pressure, a threefold spike in risk of diabetes and around a twofold jump in heart disease, all ailments that shorten life span. Diabetes alone is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States and the major cause of kidney failure, blindness and nontraumatic leg amputation — all for the often preventable crime of making your body a sugar shack.

One in 10 people get a whopping one-fourth or more of their calories from added sugar. These sugar hounds are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets are less than 10 percent added sugar, says the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine.

Still, you don’t have to be obese for sugar to throw your body a curve. Overall, the odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in the diet — and that was true regardless of a person’s body mass index (BMI), age, sex or physical activity level.

Why are we hooked?

This sugar craving isn’t surprising: Sweet treats seem to release the same feel-good neurochemicals of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins in the brain as alcohol, nicotine and heroin. While sugar stimulates the same part of the brain, its grip isn’t as fierce. “It’s not like you have one or 10 hits and you’re hooked,” Sharma says. “You may obsess about your next fix, but it’s more a habit than an addiction: What your body gets used to, it will crave — and that leads to overeating.”

But there’s good news: If you eat fruits and whole grains versus just desserts and sugary sodas, that’s what your body will crave, Sharma says.

Your body absorbs their complex carbs more slowly, thus reducing the roller coaster of dizzying sugar highs and lows you may feel after binging on cookies, candy and prepared foods. “You’ll feel full faster — and longer — so you won’t eat as much,” Sharma adds.

Now that’s sweet.

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