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Sugar, Sugar

Hidden and not-so-hidden sugars could be sabotaging your diet – and your overall wellness

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If shedding those extra pounds is your top New Year’s resolution, health experts say you should start small – with your sweet tooth.

“I think most Americans are probably not aware of the amount of sugar they are consuming,” says Dr. Jeannie Gazzaniga-Maloo, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, Chicago. “When it is over consumed, it certainly is contributing to a person being overweight or obese.”

According to the latest figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American in 2006 consumed about 139 pounds of added sugar (refined sugar, corn sweeteners, honey and edible syrups). And while that number has been dropping since 1999, when it peaked at 151 pounds per American, some health experts say we are still consuming too much.

“This still equals almost half a cup of sugar per person per day,” says Dr. Nancy Appleton of La Jolla, California. “A teenage boy eats almost twice that.”

Appleton, a nutritionist and author of “Lick The Sugar Habit” (Avery, 1996), says there is plenty of evidence that Americans are addicted to sugar, including the fact that “we drink over 500 soft drinks a year and there are only 365 days per year.”

A growing amount of medical research is pointing to the health consequences of too much added sugar, including the increased risk of Type 2 diabetes in women and, in the area of sugar-sweetened drinks, an increase in overweight children and adults.

“Beverages with added sugar increase the calories you are consuming each day,” says Andrea Sharma, an epidemiologist with the Centers For Disease Control (CDC), Atlanta. “If you’re not burning those calories, that leads to an increase in weight.”

According to Sharma, 40 percent of the added sugar in American diets is coming from sugar-sweetened beverages. A soda with 40 grams of sugar, adds Appleton, is equal to about ten teaspoons of sugar.

Another health concern, says Appleton, is sugar’s affect on the immune system.

“Sugar suppresses the immune system,” she says. “I’ve seen this under a microscope. I’ve given people sugar and watched as their blood sugar goes up. The white blood cells of your immune system get dormant. They no longer can defend you against foreign invaders.”

Not all experts agree on the specific consequences of too much sugar. Nor do even the harshest critics, like Appleton, believe cutting sugar out of your diet is for everyone. She says a healthy person who exercises regularly and eats well can handle as much as two teaspoons of sugar at one time. A person with a chronic disease like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol should have no sugar, she says.

One thing that many health experts do agree upon is that Americans should be more aware of the added sugar they put in their bodies. Gazzaniga-Maloo says this can include candy bars, cookies, pastries, cakes, cereals, breads, crackers, yogurt, canned fruit and gourmet coffee drinks. The CDC recommends making water more exciting by adding slices of lemon, lime, cucumber or watermelon and cutting back on sugar-sweetened beverages.

“If you’re going to drink soda, drink eight ounces instead of 64 ounces,” Sharma says. “You can drink diet soda or low-calorie soda. You can drink water.”

Check the labels on items you buy at the supermarket. Some foods have more added sugar than you may expect, Appleton says.

“They add sugar to the white rice of the sushi in the supermarket,” she says. “Ninety-two percent of the calories for cranberry sauce are from added sugar. More than 60 percent of the calories in ketchup come from the sugar in tomatoes or added sugar.”

Yet Appleton discourages people from going cold turkey when it comes to sugar.

“You’ll go through withdrawal symptoms,” Appleton says, who suggests weaning yourself over three weeks. “Eat half of the sugar you usually do the first week. The second week, just take a bite of whatever sugary foods you can’t resist. The third week, take a bite of the sugary food and spit it out. Instead, drink a glass of water to fill your stomach.”

In the end, educating yourself about sugar can lead to some sweet results.

“The clients that I am helping to lose weight, when they learn to make balanced choices, they tell me they feel less hungry and become more in control of their diet,” Gazzaniga-Maloo says. “And that sometimes contributes to weight loss.”

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