Colette's Blog

April 12, 2011

For decades, the Atkins Diet has advised followers to eliminate added sugar from their meals and snacks. As you probably know, unlike natural sugar, which is integral to a food such as fruit, added sugar—the name says it all—is used to boost flavor and sweetness. Added sugars include table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey and numerous other caloric sweeteners, both manufactured and natural. Obviously, added sugars significantly raise both the carb count and the calories in food as diverse as barbecue sauce and breakfast cereal.

Proof Positive

To distinguish between integral sugars, which are found in vegetables and dairy products, as well as fruit, and added sugars, you need to study both the list of ingredients and the Nutritional Facts panel on packaged foods. Say you’re considering a container of blueberry yogurt. If only berries turn up on the ingredients list, any grams of sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts panel are integral. If fructose, cane syrup or other forms of sugar, turn up as ingredients, however, you can be sure that it’s added sugar. In many cases, both added and integral sugars are in a product.

Obviously, the more added sugar you consume, the more likely you’re toting around some excess pounds. It’s pretty much a no brainer. Nonetheless, it’s gratifying to now know that solid research backs up common sense. According to lead author Huifen W@ng, of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, over the last 27 years the intake of added sugar has steadily increased. Low and behold, so has average body weight.

W@ng and the other researchers examined data compiled for the Minnesota Heart Survey detailing the diets of adults in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, along with their height and weight. The subjects were aged 25 to 74 and the collection of data spanned the years between 1980–1982 and 2007–2009, representing six different time periods for each person. Not surprisingly, the more added sugars men and women consumed, the heavier they became. The findings were presented at the American Heart Association conference in March.

“There is limited data available looking at how added sugar intake is related to body mass index (BMI),” said W@ng. “The fact that added sugar and weight largely paralleled one another for almost 30 years suggests the potential for a connection between the two factors.” She is speaking with usual caution of a research scientist, but I would call this a clear case of cause and effect.

Small Gender Differences

The study revealed that on average, women’s BMI initially increased over time and then leveled off by the last two data collection time points. This paralleled the volume of added sugar intake. Over the 27 years, added sugars increased for women from slightly more than 15 percent of total calories to 13.4 percent by the end of the study. Men, on the other hand, showed an ongoing increase in BMI, even as their caloric intake from added sugars declined somewhat in the last two time periods. However, the men’s overall intake of added sugars increased by almost 38 percent over the almost three-decade span, at which point it comprised more than 15 percent of their daily calories. At all time periods, women consumed slightly less added sugars than men did. A particularly disheartening statistic is that younger adults consumed more added sugars than older adults, suggesting that their intake would increase over time with concurrent weight gain.

Much Too Much

The American Heart Association recommendations call for an intake of no more than 100 calories of added sugars a day for most women. That’s the equivalent of 25 grams of carbs from this source alone! For most men, the guideline is no more than 150 calories, the equivalent of almost 38 grams of carbs, again only from added sugar. This would be funny if it weren’t so sad. No wonder the United States is in the midst of an epidemic of overweight and obesity. Added sugar provides nothing other than added calories. It has no vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or other nutritional value. Every time a person takes in calories from added sugar, it’s replacing a nutritious food or beverage that provides both calories and healthful micronutrients.

At the risk of preaching to the converted, let me remind you that the best way to kick the sugar habit is to avoid sodas and other beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Don’t be fooled by the ads for naturally sweetened beverages. All this means is that the sweetener comes from sugar cane, not corn sugar. It’s still empty calories, which are as bad for your teeth as your waistline—and your heart. The increasing use of colas and similar drinks in lieu of water has also paralleled the overall increase in the BMI of the average American.

Share and Share Alike

What do you think of this study? Did you have a hard time kicking the sugar habit? Were you able to do without or switch over to one of the almost-no-carb alternatives? Are you worried about the amount of added sugar your kids or your friends consume? Please share your thoughts with the Atkins Community and also let me know what you’d like to hear about in the future. 

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