Oh, how we love sugar. It tastes great, makes us feel good and gives us an extra kick to help get through the day. We can’t get enough of it. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines reveal that on average, Americans ingest 17 teaspoons of sugar a day, even though the World Health Organization recommends we eat no more than five to 10. Seventeen teaspoons a day adds up to almost 60 pounds a year! Think what 60 pounds looks like — that’s a lot of sugar — and it has absolutely no nutritional value or benefit to your health.
All that excess sugar is associated with the development of numerous health conditions such as weight gain/obesity, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, build-up of plaque in your arteries, inflammation, weakened immune function, decreased bone health, depression, anxiety, fatigue and sleep difficulties. These are all common secondary health complications for people living with chronic mobility impairments. So, if you’re eating and drinking more than the recommended amount every day, it is critical that you reduce your sugar intake to help lower your risk of developing or compounding these serious health complications.
To give you an example, people with spinal cord injuries often have weakened immune systems as a result of the biochemical changes that occur following injury. If someone with SCI puts a couple of sugars in their morning coffee, eats a breakfast donut, then follows that up with a soft drink at lunch, a mid-afternoon candy bar and a big piece of cake after dinner, they are further depressing their immune system all day.
Here’s how. Vitamin C is needed by white blood cells to engulf and absorb viruses and bacteria. The white blood cells that do this need to contain 50 times the concentration of vitamin C normally found in the blood around them in order to continue to destroy bacteria and viruses. However glucose — sugar in its simplest form, as found in the blood stream — and vitamin C have a similar chemical structure. So similar, in fact, that when a white blood cell tries to pull in more vitamin C from the blood around it, glucose can get substituted by mistake. And if the concentration of glucose in the blood is high from eating sugar all day, a white blood cell’s vitamin C concentration will start to drop because of the large amount of glucose it’s pulling in as a substitute for vitamin C.
In turn, the white blood cell’s ability to absorb and destroy viruses and bacteria is reduced by up to 75%. Moreover, it can take four to six hours for the vitamin C concentration in the white blood cells to reach the optimum concentrations again.
Part of the problem is people are over-consuming sugars without even knowing it. For instance, many people only associate calories with food but not drinks. Yet drinks often contain more sugar and calories than a plate of food. A 12-ounce soft drink has approximately 40 grams of sugar, or 10 teaspoons, and some specialty coffees contain over 80 grams. If you’re drinking even one of these a day, you’re exceeding your daily amount.
A study released in March by the American Academy of Neurology also demonstrated that people with multiple sclerosis who drink sugar-sweetened beverages experienced more severe symptoms and a higher level of disability compared to people with MS who seldom drink sugar sweetened beverages.
Another problem with excess sugar consumption is there are over 60 different names for sugar listed on our food labels and many of them sound healthy, so we don’t think twice about eating them. Some examples are cane juice, corn syrup, high fruit concentrate, malt syrup, palm sugar, beet sugar and brown rice syrup.
Here are five simple tips to help you reduce your daily sugar intake and stay healthy:
1. Read food labels carefully. When comparing package nutrition facts labels, always choose foods that have five or less grams of sugar per serving — this is just over 1 teaspoon. On the ingredients list label, items are listed from most to least. If sugar is one of the top three ingredients, it’s too much — don’t eat it.
2. Eliminate common foods and drinks with high sugar content. Stop drinking soft drinks, specialty coffees, sports drinks and sweetened, store-bought iced tea. Stop eating obviously sugar-rich sweets like cookies, cakes, pies, donuts and candy bars. Cut out processed muffins, processed cereals, fruit-bottom yogurt, canned fruit and even low-fat products, as sugar is commonly added to make them palatable. Eliminate condiments such as BBQ sauce and ketchup — you’d be surprised how much sugar is packed into just one spoonful.
3. Eat natural sugars. Fruits, pure maple syrup and honey are great (and tasty) sources of natural sugar.
4. Replace artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, sucralose, maltodextrin and saccharin are found in products such as NutraSweet, Equal, Splenda and Sweet’N Low. Recent statistics revealed that 41% of American adults consume these zero calorie artificial sweeteners, but these products are linked to long-term weight gain and diabetes.
5. Use healthy, low-calorie sweeteners instead. The three options below contain no artificial ingredients, preservatives or flavors and are safe for people living with diabetes:
• Stevia is made from the leaves of the stevia plant and has 30-150 times the sweetness of sugar. It comes in liquid or powder form.
• Monk fruit is derived from the South Asian fruit of the same name and has 150-200 times the sweetness of sugar. It also comes in liquid or powder form.
• Swerve contains the natural sweeteners erythritol and oligosaccharides.
Make sure to use these natural, low-calorie sweeteners in moderation, as they may cause stomach upset for some individuals, especially when consumed in large amounts.
• U.S. Dietary Guidelines, health.gov/dietaryguidelines
Joanne Smith is a nutritionist and co-author of Eat Well Live Well with SCI and Other Neurological Conditions. For more information on nutrition for neurological injuries, go to www.eatwelllivewellwithsci.com.