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Sneaky sugar: We're eating too much, and we don't even know it

Americans may be heeding warnings to avoid sugary drinks, but many are still consuming way too much “added sugar” in their food, a new government report shows. 

And most of those sugary foods are being consumed at home rather than at restaurants, said study co-author Bethene Ervin, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Current government guidelines suggest that Americans limit total discretionary calories, including added sugars and solid fats, to 5 to 15 percent of food consumed per day. Ervin and her co-author Cynthia Ogden found that added sugars make up approximately 13 percent of the average American adult’s total intake.

Ervin and Ogden found that adult consumption of added sugars declined with increasing income. So, while women in the lowest income category were consuming 15.7 percent of their calories as added sugars, those in the highest income category were consuming 11.6 percent of their calories as added sugars. The researchers found a similar trend for men.

What surprised Ervin and Ogden was the lack of an income effect on kids. No matter what income bracket the kid came from, the consumption of added sugars was the same.

“Income is often considered a proxy for education,” Ervin said. “So adults with more income and education may be making healthier lifestyle choices. But that may not be translating over for their children.

”One culprit is sugary sodas. Although other research has shown that soda consumption has been declining, if you look at individual foods and beverages, these drinks still lead the pack, Ervin said.

Many Americans may not know how much total sugar they’re consuming because the sweeteners are often hidden in prepared foods, like ketchup, experts say.

“I think people are interested in making changes and they’re heeding the warnings about sugary beverages,” said Sara Bleich, an associate professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “But when it comes to food it’s much more complicated. Cereal, for example, has a tremendous amount of added sugar. And not everyone understands that breakfast foods like muffins and pastry, things that people don’t consider to be a desert or an indulgence, pack a lot of sugar.”

Beyond that, there’s the issue of the tricky labeling found on food packages. “It takes 4 to 5 servings to fill a normal sized bowl,” Bleich said. “And that’s an enormous amount of sugar.”

Sometimes it just comes down to convenience over health, Bleich said. “I don’t think that moms want to be buying a KFC meal every night, but there’s also no time for them to cook a three course meal,” she added.

And then there’s the issue of dealing with kids who have absorbed all the marketing of sugary products. “It’s a two-way street,” Bleich said. “When it comes to kids, the whine factor does play a role.”

If you’re wondering why all there’s all this fuss about sugar, Dr. David Heber is happy to explain.

Too much added sugar, especially fructose, can lead to a multitude of chronic illnesses, said Heber, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

We’re genetically engineered to consume fats and sweets because we evolved on the savannah where food was scarce, so you ate as much as you could when you could, Heber explained. But in times of plenty, we can wreak havoc on our bodies, he added.

Fructose can convert to fat, which can not only make us heavier, but can also lead to a fatty liver – which is one of the leading causes of liver transplants, Heber said. Too much sugar can also lead to inflammation, which can raise the risk of heart disease.

Part of the problem is the ubiquity of added sugars. “Breads, for example, have a lot of sugar,” Heber said. “It’s in all kinds of places you’re not expecting to find it, even foods like ketchup.”

Heber suggests steering clear of processed foods. “You want a diet that his high in protein and low in fat with two thirds of your plate taken up by fruits and vegetables,” he said. 

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