We're overdoing it when it comes to the sweet stuff. On average, Americans are eating about 17 teaspoons of sugar per day, but the American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons for women and nine for men.
Why is going overboard a big deal? "Aside from the larger calorie load, foods with tons of added sugar are usually low in the nutrients we need for proper fueling and higher in artery-clogging fat," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
In fact, a September 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that on a daily basis, 42 percent of our calories comes from "low quality" carbohydrates like refined grains, starchy vegetables and added sugars. "By consuming these foods in place of healthier alternatives like fruits and veggies, nuts or whole grains, we are overfed and undernourished," says Harris-Pincus.
This combo can lead to weight gain, along with a whole host of other health problems.
Before we dive into those, let's clear one thing up: When we talk about eating less sugar, we're talking about added sugars, meaning that they're added during processing or when the food is being prepared. Added sugars include granulated sugar, high fructose corn syrup, malt sugar, fruit juice concentrates, etc. Even honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar count as added sugars.
Fruit and dairy products, on the other hand, also contain sugars (fructose and lactose, respectively), but these are natural sugars, and eating these types of foods provides nutritional benefits. So when we talk about eating too much sugar, we're talking about the added kind, not the natural kind.
Here, we've pulled together four big benefits of reducing your added sugar intake.
1. It Might Be Aging You
One way to tell how quickly you're aging — aside from achy joints and fine lines — is by the length of your telomeres. Come again? "Telomeres are cellular markers for aging," says Maggie Moon, RD, author of the Telomere Diet & Cookbook. "Healthy telomeres are key to keeping our cells healthy, and healthy cells equal whole-body wellness for successful aging. The inflammation and oxidative stress caused by eating too much added sugar prematurely shortens our telomeres, which is associated with premature aging, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, cancer and more."
The upside? You can still satisfy your sweet tooth; a December 2018 study published in Nutrients found that healthier telomeres were linked to naturally sweet treats like fruit, dairy and 100 percent juice. "The research review also noted that women with the healthiest diets — with the least added sugar intake — were three to four years biologically younger according to their telomeres," says Moon.
2. It Could Be Messing With Your Mood
The effect diet has on mood, specifically depression, is a growing area of study. A July 2017 meta-analysis published in Psychiatry Research looked at 21 studies across 10 countries and found that the Western diet — which includes high levels of added sugars — is associated with an increased risk of depression. But here's the good news: Researchers found that righting the diet (i.e. increasing intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy and antioxidants) decreased the risk of depression.
Drilling down even further, another study published in the August 2015 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a higher consumption of added sugars specifically was linked to an increased risk of depression, while eating more lactose, fiber, whole fruit and vegetables was associated with a decreased risk.
3. Your Appetite and Cravings Will Thank You
The trouble with foods with added sugars isn't just that they're usually high in calories; they're also typically void of fiber and protein, leaving you feeling empty, quite literally. "Concentrated sweets eaten without satisfying protein and fiber may cause an increase in blood sugar that may fall quickly and cause a decrease in energy levels and increased hunger," says Pincus. "This can also cause swings in mood as energy levels peak and stall."
Fiber and protein both slow digestion, which can help control the level at which glucose is released into the bloodstream, preventing a rapid rise and crash of blood sugar levels.
4. It Has Been Linked to Heart Disease
When it comes to our heart health, we're typically fat-focused: saturated fat, trans fats, monounsaturated fats, etc. But did you know sugar may play a role too?
Indeed, an April 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data, and the researchers found a strong association between added sugar consumption (mostly from sugar-sweetened beverages) and risk of death from heart disease.
Does This Mean So Long, Sugar?
Not so fast. "While there's no biological need for added sugar, there's room for a little bit in a healthy eating pattern," says Moon. "The thing is, it has to be balanced within the context of wholesome, nourishing foods."
The trouble is, we're finding sugar added to so many foods, from tomato sauce to salad dressing, and even bread — which is just unnecessary. Make sure you're reading the labels on your food to avoid it where possible. And when you do have sugar, make it count. Whether it's a cookie or a good piece of chocolate, enjoy the indulgence as part of a balanced diet.
- American Heart Association: "Added Sugars"
- Nutrients: "Physical Activity and Nutrition: Two Promising Strategies for Telomere Maintenance?"
- Psychiatry Research: "Dietary Patterns and Depression Risk: A Meta-Analysis"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "High Glycemic Index Diet as a Risk Factor for Depression: Analyses from the Women’s Health Initiative"
- Journal of the American Medical Association: "Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults"