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What You Need to Know About the Harms of Sugar

admin May 23, 2011

Sugar’s kind of the bane of our existence.

Everyone knows that sugar isn’t exactly a health food.  We’ve been told since childhood that too much sugar is bad for us.  Unfortunately, most people don’t fully understand sugar all that well.  It feels like if you just eat “pure” forms of it, or eat it in moderation, it’ll be fine.

However, sugar really is extremely detrimental to your health, and your family’s health.  It’s not just obesity.  It’s not just cavities.  Sugar has the power to wreak havoc on your entire body…in any quantity.

Before you take that next bite of food — any food, as hidden sugar is in almost everything! — read about the harms of sugar.

What’s Going On with Sugar in the U.S.?

Let’s start with a little background on sugar consumption in the U.S.

Over the years, sugar has gone in and out of favor, nutritionally.

In the 50s and 60s, a team of researchers showed that while sugar wasn’t “healthy” for you, it wasn’t all that detrimental to health.  At the same time, researchers showed that fat was very bad for you.  This lead to manufacturers creating low-fat and fat-free products — which they filled with high amounts of sugar to improve taste and texture.

This has since been proven false, with fat being exonerated (see the story here) and sugar coming into question yet again.

However, some intelligent researchers knew that sugar was unsafe even in the 60s and 70s.  Researcher William Duffy wrote the book Sugar Blues back in 1975, detailing the problems that sugar can cause for your health…which were ignored and even ridiculed.  (Sound familiar?)

In more recent years, event the mainstream researchers have acknowledged that, yes, sugar consumption is actually extremely detrimental to your health.

What You Need to Know About the Harms of Sugar

Currently, in the U.S., the average person consumes around 150 lbs. per year! (Source)  This includes all forms of added sugars.  This is an astronomical amount of sugar, totaling nearly half a pound per day.  If you’re reading a food label, it’s about 200 grams.

Consuming so much sugar has been linked to a number of health issues, including:

  • Diabetes (types I and II)
  • Obesity
  • Insulin resistance
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • IBS
  • Yeast infections
  • Candida overgrowth
  • Allergies
  • Systemic inflammation

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a pretty darn scary one.

Another major reason to reduce sugar consumption is because some consider it an actual “anti-nutrient.”  That is, it contains no nutrients of its own (because it is so refined and heavily processed), but it requires nutrients to digest and eliminate.  Since it doesn’t provide these nutrients in and of itself, it leaches nutrients from our bodies and other foods we eat in order to process it.  That, too, is not good at all!  Many of us are nutrient-starved as it is, so pulling even more nutrients away is not something we should be doing.

Many people also replace very healthy foods — like real animal fats, meats, fruits, and vegetables — with sugary substitutes, displacing even more nutrients!  Think fruit juice instead of whole fruit, ‘fat-free’ cookies instead of full-fat cookies (although you shouldn’t consume them too often, there’s redeeming value in cookies made with real butter, whole grain flour, real eggs, etc.), and so on.

One big reason why people are overweight is because of a lack of nutrients — their bodies are craving real food, and so signal them to eat more.  But what they’re eating is high in sugar, so they end up gaining weight…and still feeling hungry.

How Sugar is Harming Your Health

How Much Sugar Should We Eat?

In a perfect world, we would eat no refined sugar at all.

Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, so that’s not totally realistic.  Many experts recommend fewer than 25 grams of added sugar per day (which is the equivalent of about 5 teaspoons).

The truth is, if you’re cooking at home and not serving any dessert-type foods or baked goods, you’ll easily consume fewer than 25 grams per day.  But, if you’re still consuming processed foods, you’ll end up with a lot more than that without even realizing.

For example:

  • 4g sugar per tablespoon of ketchup
  • 6g sugar per tablespoon of barbecue sauce
  • 5 – 20g per serving of canned soup

A lot of food items that you wouldn’t think have sugar, have 5 – 10 grams!  And foods that you would expect to be sweet, like sweetened drinks, have so much more.  There are approximately 40 grams in a single 12-oz. can of soda, and 16g in 8 oz. of Kool-Aid.

The moral of the story: skip the processed foods!

Even in the home-cooked items, you’ll find a fair amount of sugar.  Muffins can have anywhere from 5 – 20 grams of sugar each, depending on your recipe.  Brownies or cookies are much higher in sugar, up to 10 – 15 g each (possibly more, depending on your recipe).  This is for small servings!  It’s wise to consume sweet treats only in moderation.

Even “lower sugar” versions often have 5 – 8g of sugar, simply because sweet foods don’t taste good without it.  But don’t worry!  I have ideas for you.

What About Sugar Alternatives?

For most of the country, the best solution to eating less sugar is simply to replace it with “sugar substitutes,” like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin.  These, however, are fake, laboratory-made foods that are even worse than sugar.

These “fake” sugars are linked to migraines, stomach upset, and even cancer. They taste fake.  Sucralose was originally part of an insecticide compound (yet we eat it…).  There is no redeeming value to these, period.

Some like stevia and other more “natural” sugar substitutes.  Stevia, especially in leaf form, is fine.  It’s best to skip the highly processed forms of stevia, because they are extracted and refined and are only a part of the plant.  They’re definitely safer than other sugar substitutes (and we allow them on rare occasions — for example, if the choice is between stevia-sweetened organic tea and corn syrup-sweetened lemonade, we’ll allow the tea as a treat), but not great for frequent consumption.

There’s also some evidence that stevia ‘tricks’ the body with its sweet taste and lack of calories and may mess up hormone balance and metabolism, so be cautious with it, especially if you’re dealing with adrenal fatigue or any more serious health issue.  In this case, I prefer to use honey — which I’m getting to!

Are Any Sugars Safe?

It’s not realistic to say, “Never eat sugar again!”  No one’s going to stick to that despite knowing the harms of sugar.  We’re programmed to like sweet foods and to want to eat them sometimes!

The truth is, some sugars are a little better than others.  It depends on your needs.  I would recommend sticking to the least processed options available, and having them only on rare occasions.

Sucanat

This is a form of sugar that’s simply dried, cut sugar cane.  It has a bit of a different texture than sugar granules, and a little bit of a molasses flavor.  Many people use this type of sugar because it less processed and does contain some nutrients.

I find that many are sensitive to any form of sugar cane, myself included, and this has a fairly high glycemic index, so I place this in the ‘rare treat’ category.  (I do not use it personally anymore at all.)

Maple Syrup

This is a form of sugar that comes from sugar maple trees — most of us know that.  Trees are tapped for sap, which is then boiled down, typically to 5% of its original volume.  It’s thick, rich, with a unique flavor and a fairly good nutrient profile, but still a higher glycemic index (not as high as cane sugar though).

People who have trouble with blood sugar spikes or who have an autoimmune disease will most likely need to avoid this, too.  (I do, for the most part.)

Coconut Sugar

This sugar is from the coconut palm tree.  It has a lower glycemic index than other types of sugars, and many people tolerate it better.  Some diabetics can include this in their diets, although talk to your doctor if that’s you.  I’ve found this is no different for me than cane sugar — similar taste and similar effects.

Raw Honey

This, of course, is made by bees and is pure and unfiltered.  This is the only type of “sugar” that I choose to consume.  It doesn’t spike blood sugar and is safe for those with gut issues.  It has a wide array of nutrients, plus other health benefits.  I would still recommend moderation, but it’s the only form of sugar that’s fairly safe for most.

Date Sugar

This is not actually “sugar,” but just dried, ground up dates.  It doesn’t melt, because it isn’t a true sugar.  It has a lower glycemic index because it comes with all the fiber and nutrients of dates.  I would recommend this for baking, and I usually use a mix of date sugar and honey.  Don’t try it in your tea — it won’t work!

Cane Sugar

Unbleached, organic cane sugar is pretty ubiquitous.  It can be organic “white” sugar, or demerara sugar, or turbinado sugar.  They’re really all about the same.  They’re fairly processed white sugar, with a little bit of molasses added for color.  They’re not any healthier than the pure white sugar you can buy everywhere.

The only time I use this sugar is for brewing kombucha, and that’s because the culture requires it as food — but most of the sugar is fermented out.

Finally, coconut oil, vanilla extract, and cinnamon all add to the ‘sweetness’ of a treat without actually adding any sugar.  In fact, coconut oil and cinnamon are very healthy for you!  I like to add these to baked goods so they feel more decadent than they really are!

How to Enjoy a Sweet Treat Without Sugar

Even if we know all about the harms of sugar, we all still have sweet cravings, right?  Try one of these suggestions for the occasional (healthier) treat:

  • Fresh fruit plain or with real whipped cream
  • A slice of sprouted bread, topped with butter and unsweetened apple butter
  • Coconut flour cake
  • Homemade ice cream
  • Homemade popsicles
  • Fresh-squeezed fruit juices
  • Homemade fruit pies

The list could go on.  The point is, it’s entirely possible to have a treat now and again without overloading on sugar.  Enjoy yourself now and then.

Did you know about the harms of sugar?  Are you trying to reduce your consumption?

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11 Comments

  1. What are your thoughts on Agave Nectar? Domino brand just came out with two kinds of agave nectar (regular and a lighter, less-caramel one) that they are selling right next to the Domino sugar products. They are promoting it as having a lower glycemic index than sugar.

    I am trying to find a replacement for white sugar in my morning cup of black tea with milk and sugar (British style) and honey, maple syrup and succanat have all failed the "British cup of tea" taste-test. (Though I do use them in other recipes.)

    This is the product I am asking about: http://www.dominosugar.com/products/agave

    Reply

  2. Another great article!
    I have been using Truvia for about a year – I had no idea that it has no advantage over other artificial sweeteners. I thought it was healthier because it was made from stevia.

    Do you know which brands of stevia are safe?

    Reply

  3. Rebecca-I have read that agave nectar is HIGHER is fructose than HFCS and it is processed, not just a naturally occurring sweetner as many believe. Check out Food Renegade for a story on it.

    Katie-thanks for sharing the stats-I've been wondering how much sugar I eliminated my cutting out processed food! Have you successfully made jam with any of the more natural sweeteners? I haven't tried and don't want to just "do it" and risk losing all that fruit and wasting money.

    Reply

  4. I make most of our food from scratch. On average over the past 10 years I've used 10-12 lbs of sugar per year for each person who eats solid foods. This year I suspect our average will be much lower. Since Feb we've only used 4 lbs of sweeteners total for the 4 of us who eat solid foods.

    Reply

  5. Rebecca,

    I used to use it, a couple years ago. Unfortunately it's heavily processed, usually chemically. It's just not something that's naturally sweet and it's not a traditional food. I'd say that the best option would be to look into different varieties of honey that are less strongly flavored and see if those work. I know there are less common ones that are basically just sweet and don't have that characteristic "honey" flavor. Organic sugar is also slightly better than plain white.

    Mari,

    SweetLeaf is good, I believe, or any form of liquid extract.

    Reply

  6. I've always felt that sugar substitutes were poison, despite all the reports stating the opposite, and have stayed away from them. That being said, I do use organic sugar when I bake at home and we definitely have our fair share of sweets. Sugar is definitely the next thing I need to wean out of our diet as I think we are all mildy (or more) addicted to it.

    Reply

  7. how do you feel about coconut or palm sugar?

    Reply

  8. Is the new product, Stevia in the Raw, any better/ closer to its natural form … or just marketing?

    Reply

  9. […] some natural forms of sugar do have some redeeming value ( sucanat, maple syrup, raw honey), and are not bad for you in […]

    Reply

  10. […] Sugar and refined flours fuel cancer cells and cause them grow more rapidly. […]

    Reply

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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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