Once upon a time, I worked at Disney World where I ate a diet as sugarcoated as the theme park itself. Foods you wouldn’t even traditionally consider sweet: potato chips, French fries, barbecue, and even salads—all of them were made just a bit sweeter at the theme park.
Eating healthily is hard when you clock in at a place that literally pumps out the smell of artificial popcorn. I tried to balance my bad eating habits with frozen veggies and vegetable lasagna. As long as I maintained my weight, I thought, my decadent diet could do no harm.
Then I began experiencing persistent chest and rib pains. My doctor suggested that I might have a condition known as costochondritis or Tietze’s syndrome, an inflammation of rib cage cartilage. Researching the causes of acute inflammation led me to a likely culprit: diet.
My forehead started breaking out like never before, and I wondered whether what had triggered my acne—ultimately, an inflammatory condition—could also be the culprit behind the other, less visible signs of inflammation going on inside my body.
We all know that eating too many sweets can cause stomachaches and cavities. But many other negative effects of sugar intake go beyond the obvious. With 2017 headlines such as the New York Times' "What Not to Eat: The Case Against Sugar" and the Daily Beast's "Is Sugar the New Smoking?" it's clear we've reached a mea culpa regarding what The Guardian calls the “alcohol of the child.”
To make better choices about how and when we consume it in the new year, here are 5 surprising things we learned about sugar in 2016.
01. The effects and potential risks of high-sugar diets have been underrated and overlooked for decades.
The average American consumes about 32 teaspoons of added sugars per day, notes The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA recommends a maximum of 10 teaspoons (about 40 grams) of added sugars per day.
An article by the Journal of the American Medical Association, Internal Medicine (JAMA) in September describes the sugar industry’s efforts to downplay the possible connection between sugar and heart disease, shifting the blame from sugar to saturated fat. According to JAMA, the Sugar Research Foundation spent $600,000 in the mid-sixties (the equivalent of $5.3 million today) to spread the word to “people who had never had a course in biochemistry … that sugar is what keeps every human being alive and with energy to face our daily problems.”
02. New research has addressed a longtime controversy over whether a high-sugar diet contributes to diabetes.
A new study by scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School has found a trigger connection between high-sugar consumption leading to pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. This isn't just a problem for the elderly. Olivia Yang, a 25-year old account exec for an ad agency in Boston, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at the young age of 19. Yang tells CBS News, “I didn’t realize how much sugar was in stuff I was eating until I was diagnosed—everyday consumptions."
03. Sugar is also related to heart disease, hypertension, common cancers, Alzheimer’s, and more.
Name a long-term degenerative disease, and Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar, will probably point you toward the same culprit. Sugar consumption has been linked to heart disease only in recent years, according to JAMA. And Harvard reports on preliminary research suggesting that high-glycemic foods that cause blood sugar to spike may contribute to age-related macular degeneration, ovulatory infertility, and colorectal cancer.
Other possible, albeit lesser-known, effects of added sugars range from more aggressive cancer growth to aging, plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis), chronic diarrhea and other bowel disturbances, according research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
04. Sugar is hiding in products that you wouldn’t expect (and with different names, too).
“In a sense, sugar is the number one food additive. It turns up in some unlikely places, such as pizza, bread, hot dogs, boxed mixed rice, soup, crackers, spaghetti sauce, lunch meat, canned vegetables, fruit drinks, flavored yogurt, ketchup, salad dressing, mayonnaise, and some peanut butter,” a USDA report said.
Added sugar is found in foods like bread and milk, under at least 61 different aliases. By disguising added sugar under other names, like barley malt and dextrin, product companies are able to hide much more of it on their ingredient lists. That might lead you to think that you should just check the total grams of sugar on a nutrition label, but those sugars could be naturally-occurring from fruits and vegetables, which studies show are unlikely to be deleterious to your health. To find out whether sugar has been added to a product, become familiar its many pseudonyms—lactose, sorbitol, and rice syrup, to name a few more. Then read the ingredients list instead.
05. Simply cutting back on inflammatory foods such as added sugars and processed foods can benefit anyone—and in a short time period.
Reducing added processed sugar for as little as nine days comes with notable health benefits. A recent study in the Journal of Obesity replaced school children's diets with no- or low-sugar added processed foods such as turkey dogs, pizza, baked chips, and popcorn. Even after leaving this junk food in, "After nine days, blood pressure went down by an average of five points, the triglyceride measurement of cholesterol fell by thirty-three points, low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) fell by ten points, and blood sugar and insulin levels both fell," TODAY reports.
In his book, Taubes insinuates that forgoing added sugar and high glycemic foods altogether may not be the end-all antidote to chronic disease, but studies like these offer a convincing case against over-consuming it. Of course, resisting all added sugar may not be feasible for everyone’s lifestyle. But being informed about the possible effects of high-sugar diets can help us make healthy decisions.
It's been a while since my Disney days. Now, I try to adopt a healthier diet and mindset—limiting my sugar intake was only the first step toward a wholesome lifestyle. I now know that health-conscious habits feed not only my body but also my overall well-being. And I think that makes life all the sweeter.
Photo Credit: Sophie Hansen