Too Sweet a Life

Who would have guessed that a song by the Guess Who would become a health anthem? “Lonely feeling Deep inside, Find a corner where I can hide, Silent footsteps crowding me, Sudden darkness but I can see, No sugar tonight in my coffee, No sugar tonight in my tea, No sugar to stand beside me, No sugar to run with me.” Not exactly the most brilliant lyrics I ever heard, but not a bad message.

No sugar may be impossible to achieve but what about just six teaspoons a day? That, according to the World Health Organization is what we should be striving for if we are to achieve the recommendation of just 5% of calories in our diet coming from sugar. And guess how much we are currently consuming in Canada? A whopping 26 teaspoons a day. That of course is an average, teenage boys gobble some 41 teaspoons while senior women only about twenty. Where is all that sugar coming from? A can of sugar-sweetened soft drink has about ten teaspoons, a serving of Fruit Loops about eleven (that’s a hundred times more trhan Shredded Wheat), a candy bar has around seven and a doughnut four. Then there are the hidden sugars, like four teaspoons in a serving of tomato soup, and half a teaspoon in a slice of bread.

It isn’t hard to see that the sugar adds up. But so what? What’s wrong with sugar? After all, it’s natural isn’t it. And natural substances are better for us than those chemically concocted sweeteners, aren’t they? Actually, no. Sugar is a problem. Of course that has nothing to do with whether it is natural or not. It has to do with what it can do in our body. Obviously, it can result in weight gain. You don’t have to be a genius to come to that conclusion. Extra calories translate to extra weight, and sugar can deliver a lot of extra calories. A hundred and sixty in a can of pop. You would have to run at 5 miles per hour for fifteen minutes to burn that off. But the issue isn’t only about weight gain.

Obesity is of course a major problem because it is associated with diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. But sugar seems to be a problem even aside from its link to obesity. A major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association recently found a clear link between added sugar intake and cardiovascular disease mortality even in the absence of obesity. Soft drinks specifically were linked to heart disease. Of course an association by itself cannot prove that sugar is the culprit, but it is suggestive, especially when one takes into account that fructose, which is released when sucrose is digested has been implicated in causing metabolic problems.

The WHO’s recommendation of 5% of total calories is an extreme challenge to a population now consuming about 15% of total calories as sugar. And it is a bitter pill for the sugar industry to swallow because such a cutback could translate to billions of dollars in lost revenue. So we will be hearing the usual arguments about moderation and how sugar can be part of a balanced diet. Well, that depends on how one determines what amounts to a balanced diet. The WHO’s experts have stated that in their view a diet isn’t balanced if more than 10% of calories come from sugar. When making dietary recommendation one always has to consider any potential downside. With curbing sugar intake there isn’t one. Sugar is not a dietary requirement. Of course cutting down is hard because the stuff tastes so good. And it is also hard to know where it hides. It may be listed as barley malt, evaporated cane juice, corn sweetener, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, molasses, dextrose, glucose and of course high fructose corn syrup. Time to be on the lookout for all these. One easy way to cut down is to just drink water instead of pop. Life may not be quite as sweet, but it may well be longer.

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