The American Heart Association’s (AHA) new guidelines published in late August were a refreshing point of clarity contrasting with the vagueness typical of nutrition advice designed not to offend any major food lobby.
The new statement, published in Circulation, replaces AHA’s hazier 2006 one to “minimize the intake of beverages and foods with added sugars,” and provides detailed guidance by recommending an upper limit on added-sugars intake.
Let’s start with the AHA guidelines and look at the numbers:
• The upper limit for added sugars should be no more than half our discretionary calories. (Discretionary calories are at the very tip of the food pyramid, an area that’s small but fun; this is what we can allow ourselves to eat once we’ve eaten a nutritious diet; luxuries such as solid (saturated) fats, added sugars, and alcohol fall into this category, all of which should be consumed sparingly.)
• Most American women should consume no more than 100 calories of added sugars per day (6 teaspoons of added sugars); most men, no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons of added sugars).
For an average adult woman, who needs about 1,800 calories to maintain her weight, there are about 200 calories in the discretionary budget, and the AHA advises her to spend no more than 100 of these on added sugar. Alas, it’s not that easy to know how much added sugar there is in prepared foods, as the food label lists all sugars—both innate carbs and added sugar —in the sugar component of the label. The sugar content on the nutrition label of fresh fruit looks quite similar to that of a cookie, even though only the cookie has added sugar, and fruits have naturally occurring sugars that act quite differently in our body.
Many prepared foods have lots of added sugar in them—sugar increases palatability, appetite and really “sells” the product. To get an idea of how much sugar is added to common foods you can glimpse into the USDA database, where you’ll see that significant amounts of sugar are added not only to drinks and desserts, but also to many breads, salad dressings, condiments and even baby food. Added sugar even comprises about half of the carbohydrates of many breakfast cereals! Your meager six allotted teaspoons of sugar may very well be already spent with sugar added to cereal, ketchup and yogurt well before you’re thinking about a dessert.
Now on to the number one source of added sugar.
(Full disclosure: I’m vice president of product development for Herbal Water, where we make organic herb-infused waters that have zero calories and no sugar or artificial ingredients. I’m also a pediatrician and have been promoting good nutrition and healthy lifestyle for many years.)
The article states quite clearly that “Soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are the primary source of added sugars in Americans’ diets,” and provides a chart showing that soft drinks and fruit drinks combined make up over 42 percent of an average American’s added sugar. Just one 12-ounce can of Coke contains 130 calories in added sugars, which will put you over the AHA recommendation. The new guidelines, therefore, really spell out a recommendation that practically takes these sugary drinks out of the equation—unless one eliminates all other sweets and desserts altogether (and what’s life without an occasional dessert?)
I don’t want to leave the Circulation paper without providing some of the reasoning behind its cautious advice. To summarize, it states that:
“Excessive consumption of sugars has been linked with several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions, as well as shortfalls of essential nutrients. Although trial data are limited, evidence from observational studies indicates that a higher intake of soft drinks is associated with greater energy intake, higher body weight, and lower intake of essential nutrients. National survey data also indicate that excessive consumption of added sugars is contributing to overconsumption of discretionary calories by Americans.”
The article reviews evidence showing that added dietary sugar:
• May raise blood pressure,
• Can elevate blood triglycerides levels (a risk factor for heart disease),
• Contributes to obesity and its many consequences, and
• Can undermine normal satiety levels, motivating us to eat more than we need and create food cravings.
Agreement from other authorities
The AHA statement joins that of many other influential medical authorities.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ dietary recommendations for kids follow the same guidelines as those of the AHA and say that, “For young sedentary children, the amount of total energy intake that can come from foods used purely as a source of energy, 100 to 150 calories, is less than that provided by a usual portion size of most low-nutrient-dense snacks and beverages.” It has been calling to eliminate all sweetened drinks in schools for years.
The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research report calls to “limit the consumption of energy-dense foods and avoid sugary drinks.”
Yet, the average American still takes in about 300 calories from added sugar a day from sugary drinks alone. We clearly have a long way to go to come close to meeting the recommendations.
To build awareness, the New York City Health Department’s new ad campaign confronts New Yorkers with a bold question posted on subway billboards and print media: Are you pouring on the pounds? “Sugary drinks shouldn’t be a part of our everyday diet,” says New York City Health Commissioner Thomas A. Farley. “Drinking beverages loaded with sugars increases the risk of obesity and associated problems, particularly diabetes but also heart disease, stroke, arthritis and cancer.”
What do you think of this image?
It’s encouraging to see that more and more independent bodies recommend moving away from all sugary drinks and minimizing highly processed foods. Whether it’s the sugar or the calories, the message is becoming clearer all the time. I hope more and more people are listening.
My concern is that the upper limit for sugar intake suggested by the AHA is shockingly low to most; I don’t know many people that can easily adhere to it. We all wish we could have more discretionary calories, just as it would be great if we could have more discretionary spending money and discretionary leisure time. (There is, however, a way to get more discretionary calories: by increasing our energy expenditure significantly through a greater level of physical activity.)
But for many of us, moderation in eating has to be spelt out, and moderation in sugar intake is one of the important messages we can act on to combat obesity.
This entry has been posted as part of The Kathleen Show's Prevention not Prescriptions