Ever since I was a kid, I've craved sweets. Now that I'm a new mom, however, I pay closer attention to what my family eats, and I do my best to limit the amount of sugar in our diets. Aaron Cypess, MD, PhD, research associate and staff physician at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, agrees that most of us — kids and adults — could take another look at our daily sugar consumption. “Take those huge sodas everyone is drinking these days,” says Cypess. “Your body is just not meant to deal with that much sugar.”

How does sugar affect the body?

In fact, our cells need sugar to function. What they don't need is refined sugar, explains Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, in the 2nd edition of her book Get the Sugar Out (Three Rivers, 2008).

Refined sugar sneaks into our diets in everything from the obvious cookies and candies to less-apparent packaged goods, such as pasta sauce and frozen food. And added sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup, aren't the only problem; processed carbohydrates (such as that white bagel you wolfed down between meetings this morning) break down similarly in the body. Whatever the source, these simple sugars have an immediate effect: The pancreas has to work extra hard to manufacture insulin (the blood sugar-balancing hormone), and whatever energy the body can't use gets stored as fat, resulting in unhealthy weight gain and even insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.

Sugar and obesity

Obesity and insulin resistance aren't the only health issues related to dietary sugars, say researchers. Sugar impairs immunity and may contribute to depression, hypertension, osteoporosis, premenstrual syndrome, and high cholesterol, among other conditions. “There is increasing evidence that it can be a direct and independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” says Cypess. The chronic inflammation caused by high blood sugar levels can also lead to certain types of cancer and arthritis, says Stephen T. Sinatra, MD, a cardiologist based in Manchester, Connecticut, and co-author of Sugar Shock! (Penguin, 2007). Sugar's effect on cells also has sparked speculation about its role in Alzheimer's disease.

Curbing sugar intake isn't as hard as it seems, says Roberta Anding, RD, a Houston-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. She suggests focusing on reducing rather than eliminating sugar altogether. “And don't regard cutting back on sugar as some sort of deprivation,” says Connie Bennett, certified holistic health counselor and co-author of Sugar Shock! (Penguin, 2007). “Look at it as a way to feel better.” Bennett, who removed refined sugars and carbs from her diet, says, “I went from an exhausted, moody, irritable, headache-ridden bump-on-a-log to a woman filled with energy, vitality, enthusiasm, and good cheer. And I've heard from hundreds of people that cutting out sugar has changed their lives, too.”

Is juice OK?

When it comes to quenching your thirst, fruit juice can be a healthy option — if you read the label and drink in moderation. “Stay away from those with added sugar,” says Roberta Anding, RD, “but there is some redeeming value in 100 percent juice.” Although juice lacks the fiber content of whole fruits, it is still a valuable source of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, says that in moderation juice can help meet the recommended nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. “To satisfy one of those servings, adults can drink one 4-ounce serving of 100 percent juice per day,” she says, and adds that toddlers and small children should not drink more than 2 ounces per day. Watch intake carefully, however: Most on-the-go bottled juices come in 8- to 16-ounce containers — as much as four to eight times the recommended amount.
— K.R.