Too much of a sweet thing can be bad

April 24, 2013

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

Sugar. We all love it and nutrition activists hate it, but is sugar bad for you?

It is in everything we eat, and whether it is white, brown, honey, evaporated cane juice, apple juice or grape juice, the body metabolizes it the same way. Moreover, it is loaded with calories and calories count. If you eat more calories than you burn in exercise, you will put on weight. On that point, everyone agrees.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines, a very technical report that sets all federal nutrition policy, recommend limiting total intake of discretionary calories, which include added sugars, to 5 to 15 percent of daily caloric intake, yet many Americans continue to exceed these recommendations. What is the right thing to do for our families, especially families with school-aged children?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a diet that includes a wide variety of foods, heavy of fruits and vegetables, eaten in moderation with a heavy dose of exercise. Common sense says that seems about right, but most food activists believe in severely restricting sugar by taxing or banning it. They mistakenly believe government telling families what they can and cannot eat is the panacea to the pediatric obesity epidemic, but the science, buried in the data presented to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), begs to differ.

The NCI gave food activists indigestion when it reported that soft drinks were not, contrary to popular belief, the largest source of sugar in the diet. According to NCI data, the following food categories comprise a significant amount of sugar in our diets:

  • Grain-based desserts "“ 6.5 percent
  • Yeast breads "“ 5.9 percent
  • Soft drinks "“ 5.5 percent
  • Pizza "“ 5 percent
  • Dairy desserts "“ 2.8 percent
  • Breakfast cereals "“ 2.2 percent
  • Candy "“ 2.1 percent

Almost every day there is a news report about too much sugar causing heart disease and other cardiovascular problems. However, contrary to these alarming reports, it is the hard scientific fact that there is no direct correlation between sugar consumption from any food group and obesity. None.

"Demonizing" a single food or food ingredient will not solve the obesity problem. In fact, while obesity grows sales of regular soft drinks decline. Water sales, not soda, are hot. Candy makers are spending $2 million on a public relations effort to convince policymakers it is not a major part of the obesity problem.

Importantly, registered dietitians who counsel obese patients tell me overweight and obese folks cannot be taxed or shamed into losing weight. First, they need to want to lose the weight. Then, counting calories and increasing exercise will work. The pounds will come off.

What should you do? Get informed by reading product labels and talking to a professional. Medical doctors are not often the best choice. Registered dietitians are better. In addition, try to keep caloric intake to about 2,000 calories a day. When asking the question "is sugar bad for you?" The simple answer is, "Listen to your mother: variety and moderation is the way to go."

Jeff Nedelman has more than 30 years of experience in various industries, including a stint as a Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and chief lobbyist for the nation's largest food trade association. In all those years, Jeff has learned that the shortest distance between two political points is not a straight line.

Originally published Apr 24, 2013 1:03:03 PM.