America's Sugar Addiction and the Obesity Epidemic

Updated on June 18, 2018
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Schatzie has two bachelor's degrees, one in science and the other in English. She is working on her master's degree.

Sugar: how much are we eating?
Sugar: how much are we eating? | Source

The USDA estimates that the average American consumes over 17 teaspoons, or 94 grams, of added sugar every day. This means we are ingesting approximately 130 cups or 65 pounds of sugar a year. Our 94 grams exceed the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum intake of 50g and far surpass its lower recommended amount of 25 grams or fewer (based on a 2000 calorie diet).

In other words, only 5% to 10% of our calories should be from added sugar, with 10% pushing the upper limits. We eat closer to 13.6%. And this is using data collected after sugar industry-supported changes in 2012 that could now cause a possible under-estimation of our overall consumption (CBS News, 2016).

Think about it this way: A large 32-ounce Pepsi, Mist Twist, Dr.Pepper, Mountain Dew, or Tropical Fruit Punch all contain more than 94 grams of sugar, with smaller 20-oz sizes still measuring in at between 65 to 75. Some Starbucks venti-sized frappachinos exceed the USDA daily average as well, with other grande-sizes falling short by just a few grams, effectively eliminating your opportunity to enjoy that accompanying pastry, let alone any other sugary treats for the day…if these USDA-measured estimates are, in fact, accurate.

Of course, 94 grams is an average, so there will be people on both the high and the low ends of the sugar-consuming spectrum. But all the same, one ought to be suspicious when members of the sugar-industry were caught discussing how the 2012 USDA changes could result in the lowest sweetener consumption estimates in emails later released to the public (CBS News).

Large amounts of soda and other sweetened beverages may contain close to, if not more, than your recommended daily dose of sugar.
Large amounts of soda and other sweetened beverages may contain close to, if not more, than your recommended daily dose of sugar. | Source

There is an obvious and direct conflict of interest between what is most profitable for them and what is most healthy for us. Deluding us into believing we eat fewer sweeteners than we really do gives us a false sense of comfort and the belief that we don’t need to change. Fortunately, we can come to our own conclusions independent of the sugar-industry’s influence: calculate how much added sugar you eat in a day yourself. Once you know this number, you can decide what to do next.

Just how many grams of added sugars do you eat or drink in a day?

This of course, leads to an additional question: Why does it really matter? Why is it a big deal if you have 25 or 94 or 194 grams of sugar a day? Well, everyone pretty much agrees that sugar is NOT good for you and has suggested limits (from the USDA to the WHO to the AHA). These organizations are meant to function in the interest of public health, and rather unsurprisingly high sugar consumption has been linked to many life-threatening disorders and conditions.

But, before we discuss these further, know that sugar has been proven to be highly addictive as well…and activates the same chemical pathways within us that are triggered by heroin or alcohol abuse. So beyond discussing just how bad sugar can be, it is also important to recognize that cutting back will NOT be easy….but it can be done.

Most of the sugar Americans ingest is in the form of sweetened soft drinks or other beverages (health.gov). This is problematic, as liquid forms of sugar seem to trigger a weaker satiety signal within the body than solid forms and people often consume more overall calories when sweetened beverages are a part of their diet (p.1040). Alarmingly, enlarging the drink size of individuals by only 6 ounces has been shown to increase their calorie intake during a meal by between 10 and 26% (4). As an additional 50 calories a day becomes a 5 pound gain a year later; increasing the amount you eat or drink by this amount can become problematic, quickly (p.1014).

Sugary diets are also linked to increased levels of triglycerides, known to contribute to coronary heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and Alzheimer’s (UHN). In fact, experts recommend cutting sugar as the primary method to reduce triglyceride levels and thereby avoid these conditions (UHN). High sugar also promotes inflammation and oxidative stress within the body, both of which over time may lead to the development of cancer, various neurological diseases, pulmonary conditions, and more (NHI).

Many people who consume excess added sugar are deficient in the nutrients contained in healthier foods.
Many people who consume excess added sugar are deficient in the nutrients contained in healthier foods. | Source

In addition to these risks, people who eat high sugar diets often have lower levels of vital micronutrients such as calcium, iron, vitamin A, and zinc, as they replace nutrient dense foods with empty calories (1015). Fiber is also often deficient in the highest sweetener consumers, and as a known weight loss aid, this further adds to the tendency of sugar pushing people towards weight gain and the complications that come with it (AHA).

Unfortunately, the problems of excess sugar are not adult-specific; youth are very large consumers of sweetened beverages of all kinds (AHA). Approximately two-thirds of US children have 1 sugary beverage every day; 20.2% of boys and 18.1% of girls have at least 2 daily, and 11.5% of boys and 9.5% of girls have three or more every day (CDC). We must educate ourselves on the risks of added sugar not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our children who depend upon us to help them make decisions in their own best-interest.

The solution to sugar overconsumption may seem easy, but it’s not.

Reducing or eliminating additional sugar will be harder than you’d think. This is because of the development of sugar dependence, which has been confirmed through scientific methodology; in other words, researchers have proved that sugar can act as a mildly addictive drug (Avena, N., Rada, P. & Hoebel B., 2009).

Upon eating it, it causes the release of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone that activates the reward or pleasure centers of our brains (Healthline.com). This is also what heroin and morphine do; albeit to a much larger extent. Many people begin to crave foods and beverages with added sugar; not because they need them for calories sake (survival), but because they want to feel that good feeling or chemical reward they get upon eating it (pleasure).

As with other drugs, over time and after the brain has been repeatedly bombarded with excess dopamine, tolerance builds and it begins to take more sugar to get that same “high”; susceptible individuals consume more and more in shorter periods of time and feel almost out of control as they do so.

In laboratory experiments rats fed liquid sugar alternating with other normal rat food began to binge drink whenever the sugar was again offered to them (they did not follow this pattern with their regular food). After extended periods without sugar they drank incredibly large amounts first thing the next day. Overall, they drank as much as rats offered sugar continually but in half the time, repeatedly demonstrating frantic bingeing behavior (2009).

Rats offered continual sugar access also continued to drink it during their natural “inactive periods” when they should be sleeping. The chemically-driven need to consume sweeteners was so strong it even disrupted their sleep cycle.

Experiments using rats have revealed how addictive sugar can be in a scientific setting.
Experiments using rats have revealed how addictive sugar can be in a scientific setting. | Source

These animal experiments reveal yet further similarities between sugar and other forms of drug addiction. People reducing sugar intake have claimed to experience symptoms of withdrawal such as tremors or headaches; rats who received liquid sugar and then had it taken away show withdrawal as well. Without sugar to release dopamine in their systems rats began to shake all over and show signs of stress (avoiding open areas within a maze) (2009). The rodents displayed symptoms of depression as well; they simply floated when placed in liquid instead of attempting to escape (2009).

Depressingly, rats no longer given sugar for up to two weeks still pressed the lever to disperse sugar continually and 23% more often than they did when it actually provided them with sugar. This demonstrates their sugar cravings did not decrease with time; they actually seemed to increase. This may also be why ditching sugar is so difficult; and why relapses, as in other addictions, are not uncommon.

Of even more concern, rats showed cross-sensitization between amphetamine and sucrose; rats that had been fed the liquid sugar alternating with rat food became hyperactive when given a dose of amphetamine so low it did not have any effect on normal rats. This suggests that sugar and amphetamines work in the same way neurologically and increase an individual’s sensitivity to each other.

Sugar has been compared to other substances recognized as highly addictive and works in nearly identical ways within our bodies.
Sugar has been compared to other substances recognized as highly addictive and works in nearly identical ways within our bodies. | Source

A similar link between intermittent sugar and cocaine and quinpirole have been proven through scientific study as well (). As animals sensitized to nicotine drink more alcohol and animals sensitized to amphetamines take more cocaine, it is troubling that animals sensitized to sugar may follow the same to tendencies and be compelled to take larger amounts of dangerous drugs than others.

To add support to the theory that the drugs work in the same manner and work as gateway drugs to one another, drugs that are marketed for weight loss are also effective and prescribed for those who have addictions to nicotine or opiates.

For these reasons and others you should give careful consideration to how much added sugar you consume on a regular basis as a part of your diet and whether or not this should be adjusted to protect your health. You may experience headaches, tremors, and other sources of pain if you decide to limit It, but consider the benefits you will experience and the complications you will avoid. Further, consider that you as a role model to your children or to the younger generations should show them through example how to take control of your health. Save your money for fresh fruits and vegetables and do not support the sugar industry who has profit as their foremost goal, not your health….or mine.

Sources

American Heart Association, 2009. AHA Scientific Statement: Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health. Retrieved from http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/circulationaha/120/11/1011.full.pdf [PDF File].

American Heart Association, 2012. Frequently Asked Questions About Sugar. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HealthyDietGoals/Frequently-Asked-Questions-About-Sugar_UCM_306725_Article.jsp#.WuzH5IgvyM8

CDC, January 2017. Sugar-sweetened Beverage Consumption Amount U.S. Youth, 2011-2014. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db271.htm

Health.gov (n.d.). Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/a-closer-look-inside-healthy-eating-patterns/#added-sugars

Panera Bread (2017). Panera Bread Nutrition Information- US. Retrieved from https://www.panerabread.com/content/dam/panerabread/documents/nutrition/Panera-Nutrition.pdf

Reuter, S., Gupta, S., Chaturvedi M. & Aggarwal, B. Oxidative stress, inflammation, and cancer: How are they linked? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990475/

Starbucks.com, 2007. Cinnamon Roll Frappuccino Blended Coffee. Retrieved from https://www.starbucks.com/menu/drinks/frappuccino-blended-beverages/cinnamon-roll-frappuccino-blended-beverage#size=11050793&milk=67&whip=125

The Associated Press, 2016. Just how much sugar do Americans consume? It’s complicated. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/just-how-much-sugar-do-americans-consume-its-complicated/

UCSF (n.d.). How Much Is Too Much? The growing concern over too much added sugar in our diets. Retrieved from http://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/the-growing-concern-of-overconsumption.html#.WuoRG8gvyM8

UHN Staff, 17 Oct 2015. What Causes High Triglycerides? Sugar, Grains, and Alcohol Are Big Culprits. Retrieved from https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/heart-health/what-causes-high-triglycerides-sugar-grains-and-alcohol-are-big-culprits/

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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