SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Breaking the sugar habit

Maureen Wendt

More than a trillion dollars is spent each year fighting the damaging health effects of sugar.

The average American consumes approximately 152 pounds of sugar each year. Yikes!

Added sugars make up at least 10% of the calories the average American eats in a day. But about one in 10 people get a whopping one-quarter or more of their calories from added sugar.

Over the course of a 15-year study on added sugar and heart disease, participants who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar. 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 age, sex, physical activity level, and Body Mass Index. A sugar-laden diet may raise your risk of dying of heart disease even if you aren't overweight.

Sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks are by far the biggest sources of added sugar in the average American's diet. They account for more than one-third of the added sugar we consume as a nation. Other important sources include cookies, cakes, pastries and similar treats; fruit drinks; ice cream, frozen yogurt and the like; candy; and ready-to-eat cereals.

Nutritionists frown on added sugar for two reasons. One is its well-known links to weight gain and cavities. The other is that sugar delivers "empty calories" — calories unaccompanied by fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Too much added sugar can crowd healthier foods from a person's diet.

Could it be possible that sugar isn't the true bad guy boosting heart disease risk, but that it's the lack of heart-healthy foods like fruits and veggies? Apparently not. In a recent study, the researchers measured the participants' "Healthy Eating Index" — how well their diets match up to federal dietary guidelines. "Regardless of their Healthy Eating Index scores, people who ate more sugar still had higher cardiovascular mortality," says a researcher related to this study.

Exactly how excess sugar might harm the heart isn't clear. Earlier research has shown that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages can raise blood pressure. A high-sugar diet may also stimulate the liver to dump more harmful fats into the bloodstream. Both factors are known to boost heart disease risk.

Excess sugar consumption also increases risks for obesity, diabetes, and other medical conditions.

To prevent chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, the World Health Organization suggests limiting your sugar consumption to a maximum of 5% of your daily calories.

Federal guidelines offer specific limits for the amount of salt and fat we eat. But there's no similar upper limit for added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume less than 100 calories of added sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons) and men consume less than 150 per day (about 9 teaspoons). To put that in perspective, a 12-ounce can of regular soda contains about 9 teaspoons of sugar, so downing even one a day would put all women and most men over the daily limit.

If you're going to have something sweet, have a fruit-based dessert. That way, at least you're getting something good out of it. Of course, plain fruit with no added sugar is ideal. If you're trying to curb a soda habit, mix a bit of fruit juice with seltzer water as a replacement.

If you'd like to learn more about why sugar hooks us and tips for overcoming sugar dependency, please plan to attend "Breaking the Sugar Habit" on Monday, July 15th at 10:30 a.m. at The Dale Association, 33 Ontario St., Lockport. This is a free program and will be presented by Jennifer Johnson, health promotion coordinator with BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York. Please call 433-1886 to reserve your seat.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com .