Sugar – it’s in everything these days. Read the label of most packaged foods and you’ll see they contain added sugar in some form. Even foods you wouldn’t expect like sauces, canned soups, non-dairy milk substitutes, salad dressings and yogurt can be surprisingly high in sugar. Sugar is the number one source of empty calories with a teaspoon of the “sweet stuff” having 16 calories. Doesn’t sound all that bad until you realize the average American eats 22 teaspoons of it a day. That’s 352 “nutritionless” calories a day. Combine that with the fact that sugar causes insulin levels to spike, creating an environment that’s favorable for storing fat.
With all of these factors going against it, it’s not surprising that experts have linked America’s obsession with sugar to the obesity epidemic. Now a new study shows that added sugar in products does contribute to weight gain, although modestly.
High-Sugar Diet and Its Impact on Weight
Previous research has linked sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks with weight gain, but what about sugar in liquid AND food form? A recent meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal focused on this issue. A meta-analysis looks at a number of high-quality studies rather than a single one. Researchers evaluated the results from 68 different studies looking at the impact of sugar consumption on weight. The conclusion?
Based on the current research, added sugar in food and beverages has a modest impact on weight gain. People who increased their dietary sugar intake over a year’s time gained about 1.7 pounds by making this change only. Not dramatic but even this small amount of weight gain adds up over the years.
Interestingly, replacing calories from with an equivalent number of calories from macronutrients like protein or fat didn’t affect weight. This suggests that sugar impacts weight due to its high calorie-density rather than by an effect on metabolism or hormones like insulin.
It’s Not Just Sugar That’s the Problem
This study didn’t take into account the impact low-fiber, processed carbohydrates might have on weight gain. It focused only on sugar added to foods and beverages, and that’s not the only cause for concern. Eating a diet rich in processed carbs that are rapidly absorbed sets up an environment that’s favorable for storing fat (i.e. high insulin levels) So limiting rapidly-absorbed carbs may be as important as reducing sugar intake when it comes to controlling weight.
Other Reasons to Limit Sugar in Your Diet
When you eat sugary foods, you’re getting calories but getting little nutritional “bang for your buck.” This means you have fewer calories to devote to more nutrient-dense foods without gaining weight. Plus, sugar has been linked with aging through a process called glycation. Glycation is the process whereby sugar attaches to body proteins. This process has been linked with an increased risk of some chronic diseases and premature aging.
A high-diet may also contribute to skin aging by attaching to collagen and elastin in the dermis of the skin. This may contribute to premature wrinkling and skin laxity. Some studies also suggest that a diet high in sugar and high-glycemic carbohydrates fuels the growth of some tumors. Plus, sugar is a major player in tooth decay and gum disease. These are all good reasons to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet. The World Health Organization recommends limiting sugar to no more than 10% of your total calories – and lower is better.
How to Cut Back on Sugar
If you’re a heavy sugar consumer, and add a few teaspoons of sugar to every cup of coffee, going cold turkey probably won’t cut it. A more realistic approach is to slowly taper the amount of sugar you add to food and beverages over several weeks. You’ll gradually adjust to less sugar in your diet over time and won’t miss it.
Processed and packaged foods are a source of hidden sugars. By simply eating more whole foods you’ll reduce your sugar intake considerably. When you do buy a packaged product, read the label to see how much sugar it contains.
Soft drinks are one of the biggest sources of added sugar. Gradually replace soft drinks with green tea, water or a sugar-free beverage. Skip the fruit juice and eat fruit whole. Fruit juice is rich in natural fructose, but it lacks the fiber in whole fruit that helps to reduce the insulin response.
When the urge to eat something sweet hits, enjoy a bowl of fresh berries instead of a cookie. They’re naturally sweet enough to calm a craving but are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – unlike sugar which is just empty calories.
The Bottom Line?
Added sugar in foods and beverages has a modest effect on weight, but there are lots of other reasons to cut back on sugar in your diet – and sugar isn’t the only culprit. Cut back on low-fiber carbohydrates and processed foods that are rapidly absorbed. You’ll be doing your body a favor.
BMJ 2012;345:e7492 doi: 10.1136/bmj.e7492.
Life Extension Magazine. “Prevent Glycation-Induced Skin Aging with Topical Nutrients”
Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008; 32(1): 20–39.