I have a sweet tooth. I won’t deny it, yet I don’t think I come anywhere near what the average child consumes. The statistics are staggering!
The Union for Concerned Scientists reports on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2009-2010:
That study found that American children between the ages of 2 and 19 consumed 124 grams of sugar, or 29 teaspoons, every day.
Teenage boys in particular (age 12-19) consume an average of 161 grams—or nearly three-quarters of a cup—of sugar daily.
That is as much sugar as I use to bake a pie.
So what’s so bad about sugar? Unlike my sweet tooth that is satisfied with organic, unrefined sugar, honey, or maple syrup, the average child is consuming highly processed, refined sugars.
Sugar’s history is a slave story. The bad karma doesn’t stop there. National Geographic reports:
Richard Johnson, a nephrologist at the University of Colorado Denver, was talking to me in his office in Aurora, Colorado, the Rockies crowding the horizon. He’s a big man with eyes that sparkle when he talks. “Why is it that one-third of adults [worldwide] have high blood pressure, when in 1900 only 5 percent had high blood pressure?” he asked. “Why did 153 million people have diabetes in 1980, and now we’re up to 347 million? Why are more and more Americans obese? Sugar, we believe, is one of the culprits, if not the major culprit.”
It does seem something is amiss when we look at how our health has declined as advances in medicine rise. We have to examine our diet (and toxic environment) for culpability. Sugar seems like the obvious answer. It is ubiquitously present in so many foods, not just sweets.
As far back as 1675, when western Europe was experiencing its first sugar boom, Thomas Willis, a physician and founding member of Britain’s Royal Society, noted that the urine of people afflicted with diabetes tasted “wonderfully sweet, as if it were imbued with honey or sugar.” Two hundred and fifty years later Haven Emerson at Columbia University pointed out that a remarkable increase in deaths from diabetes between 1900 and 1920 corresponded with an increase in sugar consumption. And in the 1960s the British nutrition expert John Yudkin conducted a series of experiments on animals and people showing that high amounts of sugar in the diet led to high levels of fat and insulin in the blood—risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. But Yudkin’s message was drowned out by a chorus of other scientists blaming the rising rates of obesity and heart disease instead on cholesterol caused by too much saturated fat in the diet.
We’ve missed the boat in blaming cholesterol and fat for heat disease and obesity. Certainly too much of anything is not a good thing, but just removing cholesterol and fat without addressing American’s sugar addiction has not improved heart disease rates.
As a result, fat makes up a smaller portion of the American diet than it did 20 years ago. Yet the portion of America that is obese has only grown larger. The primary reason, says Johnson, along with other experts, is sugar, and in particular fructose. Sucrose, or table sugar, is composed of equal amounts of glucose and fructose, the latter being the kind of sugar you find naturally in fruit. It’s also what gives table sugar its yummy sweetness. (High-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is also a mix of fructose and glucose—about 55 percent and 45 percent in soft drinks. The impact on health of sucrose and HFCS appears to be similar.) Johnson explained to me that although glucose is metabolized by cells all through your body, fructose is processed primarily in the liver. If you eat too much in quickly digested forms like soft drinks and candy, your liver breaks down the fructose and produces fats called triglycerides.
Sodas are to blame for a lot of the sugar in teenagers’ diet. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that 44% of teenage boys’ sugar consumption comes from soda. Soda is also accounts for nine percent of teenage boys’ calories, which is triple the amount it was forty years ago. Teenage girl statistics are not far behind the boys.
Some of these fats stay in the liver, which over long exposure can turn fatty and dysfunctional. But a lot of the triglycerides are pushed out into the blood too. Over time, blood pressure goes up, and tissues become progressively more resistant to insulin. The pancreas responds by pouring out more insulin, trying to keep things in check. Eventually a condition known as metabolic syndrome kicks in, characterized by obesity, especially around the waist; high blood pressure; and other metabolic changes that, if not checked, can lead to type 2 diabetes, with a heightened danger of heart attack thrown in for good measure. As much as a third of the American adult population could meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome set by the National Institutes of Health.
Recently the American Heart Association added its voice to the warnings against too much added sugar in the diet. But its rationale is that sugar provides calories with no nutritional benefit. According to Johnson and his colleagues, this misses the point. Excessive sugar isn’t just empty calories; it’s toxic.
“It has nothing to do with its calories,” says endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco. “Sugar is a poison by itself when consumed at high doses.”
This is scary. It only takes little observation to notice the thickening of waist lines in America compared to other countries. It’s interesting how we don’t gain weight proportionally, and perhaps this metabolic syndrome is to blame.
Sugar is as addictive as cocaine. Sugar makes children dumb. I’m not cutting sugar out of my diet, but I have taught my children to look for it in unexpected places. My son checks labels to see how many grams of sugar, and we don’t drink sodas. I am not afraid of homemade baked goods, but I am afraid of junk food, granola bars, crackers, etc.