Health Column: Decrease sugar for better health

07/19/2011 3:37 PM |

The average American consumes more sugary foods than ever before, equaling about 22 teaspoons – a little less than 1/2 cup – of added sugar each day. That’s 20 percent more than we ate in 1970 and adds up to 350 calories a day from sugar alone. For cancer prevention, those added calories are bad news.

If you’re like the average American, you may be eating sugar without realizing it because it’s hidden in many purchased foods. For anyone who wants to limit sugar intake for a healthy weight, find out how you can identify added sugars hiding behind a different name.

Evidence suggests that sugar by itself doesn’t lead to cancer or “feed” cancer cells, but sugar calories can add up quickly. Extra calories can lead to overweight and weight gain and that leads to an increased risk for several cancers. Today a third of the country’s adult population is classified as obese and child obesity rates are on the rise.

Scientists now know that fat tissue is a metabolically active tissue. Fat cells produce high levels of some hormones and proteins called cytokines that may trigger chronic inflammation, which is linked to increased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. There’s convincing evidence linking body fatness with colon, postmenopausal breast, endometrial, esophageal, kidney and pancreatic cancers.

In an effort to avoid food and drinks that promote weight gain, avoid sugary drinks and limit energy-dense foods, which typically contain high amounts of sugar. However, this may be easier said than done.

The best way to limit your sugar intake from packaged foods is to read ingredient and nutrition labels. But when added sugar can hide behind almost 100 different names, this task is far from easy.

The ingredients on the label of a food product are listed in descending order with the largest amount first. If a sugar is among the first ingredients listed, or there are many different types of sugar listed, the product most likely has a lot of added sugar.

There are plenty of naturally-occurring sugars, such as the fructose found in fruits or the lactose in milk. Those sugars are considered to be part of a healthful diet and won’t be found in the ingredient list. If you do see sugar in the ingredient list, you can be sure it was added to the food; this is the type of sugar you want to limit in your diet.

Common sweeteners in food products include syrup, malt, cane, caramel, juice, honey, molasses and agave nectar. Others often end in “ose,” such as fructose, lactose, sucrose, maltose, glucose and dextrose.

To decrease sugar intake compare nutrition labels of various brands. One teaspoon of sugar equals four grams, so in foods where sugar is added you can estimate how much added sugar is in the product.

The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugars a day (25 grams) and men consume no more than nine teaspoons (37 grams). That corresponds to about 100 calories for women and 150 for men. (A teaspoon of sugar is 16 calories.)

Substituting sparkling waters with a splash of fruit juice, no-calorie sodas, unsweetened or lightly sweetened tea or coffee or water are always  good choices.

When you do eat sugary foods, keep the amounts small. Consider satisfying your sweet tooth more often with naturally sweet fruits instead. You’ll be getting vitamins, fiber and phytochemicals that may also help reduce your risk for cancer. Unsweetened frozen and canned fruits are easy to keep on hand and have as a snack or dessert option.

This column is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research is a cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk.