How sweet it is
By Amy Bertrand
Post-Dispatch Health & Fitness Editor
Monday, Jul. 11 2005

Mom – and your dentist, for that matter – were right. Sugar is not good for you. It provides empty calories that fill you up and leave less room for more nutritious food.

But sugar isn’t necessarily bad for you, either.

“In moderation, you can have sugar,” says Joy Bauer, author of several best-selling nutrition books and a dietitian in New York. In fact, she says, by allowing yourself a little bit of sugar, you can keep your cravings at bay and keep your diet from backfiring. “I see that so often: People try to take an all-or-nothing approach, and it backfires.”

In fact, sugar may not even be our biggest culprit.

“Most people in Western countries are fat because they eat too much fat, and not because they eat too much sugar,” says Dr. James Shoemaker, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at St. Louis University.

But no matter which weight-loss program you are considering, sugar is pretty much the one thing all of them want you to limit.

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. It’s a quick form of energy and has its value in our daily lives, but it’s easy to overdo it and abuse sugar. When sugar’s empty calories displace more nutritious foods in our diet, that’s when we run into trouble.

“Sugar isn’t bad,” says Natalie Allen, a registered dietitian at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “It’s part of our society, so don’t try to run from it. However, many of the foods with sugar are high in calories, so if people are trying to lose or maintain weight, they have trouble if they are getting too much sugar.”

Rachel Brandeis, an Atlanta dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, agrees. “I wouldn’t say sugar is something we should avoid,” she says. “We shouldn’t be on a hunt to eliminate sugar altogether. … low-carb fad diets have played a role in this phobic fear of carbohydrates. And that’s not healthy.”

Sugar, sugar everywhere

You can find sugar just about anywhere: in foods you know are sugary, such as ice cream, cookies and cakes, and in places you may not suspect, such as bread, barbecue sauce, salad dressing and yogurt.

The labels may not say “sugar”; you may instead find “high-fructose corn syrup” or something like “dextrose” on them.

“You can get it in many places,” says Allen.

In 1980, the average American consumed about 123 pounds of added sugars a year. That amount is now estimated to be about 156 pounds, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Not all of that comes from the sugar bowl, of course. Most is found in prepackaged foods we buy at the store or order at restaurants.

The biggest culprit: drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. It’s easy to consume several teaspoons of sugar at one time in a drink. And though they do provide energy and hydration, sugary drinks fill you up with empty calories and can keep you from drinking water and milk.

The consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has skyrocketed 4,000 percent since the early 1970s.

The inexpensive sweetener flooded the American market in the early 1980s, which is about the same time obesity started to rise. Some scientists have wondered if the timing is coincidence or if there is something more to it.

A recent study published in the online journal Nutrition and Metabolism suggests that fructose has a special effect on fat syntheses. That “definitely can be a cause of obesity,” says Shoemaker.

However, in terms of the glycemic index, high-fructose corn syrup is actually better than glucose. It has a lower glycemic index, which means it’s absorbed more slowly than glucose, raising the insulin in your body at a slower rate. Insulin spikes can block fat-burning and can make you hungry, and that makes it harder to lose weight.

A taste for sugar

We are born liking the sensation of sweetness, says Brandeis. Each individual is susceptible in a different way, she says, so some people really do have a “sweet tooth.”

“Some people are genetically predisposed to want or crave a higher amount of sugar,” Brandeis says.

Indeed, sweetness can be a sensory cue, telling us when we need to refuel our bodies. Foods that are naturally sweet, such as fruit and breast milk, contain important nutrients.

There’s something innate about preferring sugar to other tastes. “We have to learn how to like bitter, sour and other flavors, but sweet is something that people really, really love,” says Bauer, the author.

So, is there anything you can do to protect your kids from inheriting your sweet tooth?

First, don’t give them sugary foods until they are exposed to it elsewhere, says Bauer.

“I think what parents need to know is that once kids get older, kids want what other kids are eating,” says Bauer. “Make sure you have control … but don’t forbid it, because then kids tend to overeat. But don’t offer sweets to them when they are babies.”

Allen recommends starting babies out on vegetables before fruits, so they don’t become accustomed to that sweet taste right away.

Sugar addiction

Many scientists balk at the idea of a sugar addiction.

“They say you have to exhibit physical withdrawal for it to be an addiction,” says Bauer. “But clearly, people will say that psychologically and emotionally, they are addicted to sugar.”

Several popular diets, such as the South Beach Diet, claim to help you rid yourself of sugar cravings.

“I think you can program your body to want less of sugary foods,” Allen says. “But I don’t think there’s an exact way to say you should go about doing that.”

But that sweet tooth is so hard to satisfy. One cookie is never enough. “It’s so easy to eat too many calories once you start eating sweets. It just feeds your cravings,” says Brandeis. “If you keep reintroducing sweets to the taste buds, you won’t get rid of it.”

But, says Bauer, you don’t have to totally eliminate them from your diet. “Once you start denying yourself things, you want them more. It’s about moderation. I believe that you should eat healthy 90 percent of the time, but 10 percent of the time you can have those foods that you really crave.”