4 Keys to Chucking Sugar
By Kristin Phillips
From high fructose corn syrup to fruit juice sweeteners to agave, added sugars are everywhere. New federal dietary guidelines call for limiting added sugar in the diet to 10 percent of total calories— a significant reduction for most Americans.
Nutritional scientists at The University of Texas at Austin are looking into how our relationship to sugar has become a major contributor to the nation’s obesity epidemic—and what people can do about it.
Around 200 years ago, people in the U.S. consumed an average of 6.3 pounds of sugar in their diet annually. Today that figure is closer to 100 pounds per person per year.
“When you look at macronutrients, the total percentage of carbohydrates in the American diet has not changed,” says Jaimie Davis, an associate professor in Nutritional Sciences. “But what has changed is a shift in the kinds of carbohydrates consumed, away from whole grains, vegetables and whole fruit to refined sugars.”
Research from Davis and others in the department point toward several strategies to help curb the nation’s sugar addiction.
1. Pay attention.
Unchecked, sugar consumption can snowball. In one recent study, Davis and her colleagues allowed young children to choose from a buffet of healthy and unhealthy foods. Unsupervised, the children mowed through 35 grams of pop tarts and soda, consuming in minutes what they typically ate in a day. The children with the highest added sugar consumption remained hungry and did not feel full.
In another study, Davis found weight gain from sugar in particular poses special risks: young adults with diets high in added sugar were found to have a higher amount of fat surrounding their organs—a major health risk factor.
Both studies point to the importance of monitoring sugar intake mindfully.
2. Avoid sugar early in the day.
Consuming too many calories from sugar brings a suite of negative health consequences, including increased obesity, insulin resistance and glucose intolerance. Molly Bray, chair of the Nutritional Sciences Department, found the timing of nutrient consumption might be a factor in whether certain foods promote these poor health outcomes.
Looking at two groups of mice that ate the same total calories, Bray found that the group that breakfasted on simple sugars gained more weight compared to the group that woke up to a meal high in fat and consumed carbs later in the day. A waking high-sugar meal pattern also led to worse metabolic responses in the animals.
“Our data suggests that if you eat a high-carb breakfast, you turn on carb metabolism and never turn it off. This means that you may not burn much stored or dietary fat during the day,” says Bray. “But if you eat high fat in the morning like eggs or avocado, you boost fat metabolism and the body burns stored fat between meals.”
3. Watch what you drink.
Davis is also researching whether drinking sodas and other sweet beverages may create more cravings for sweet foods. Preliminary data indicate children who drink sugar-sweetened beverages have more responses in the reward areas of their brain when they’re shown photos of sugary food.
“My research keeps coming back to added sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages as linked to obesity and Type 2 diabetes risk factors,” says Davis. “If we target sugar-sweetened beverages to decrease sugar intake, we can cut added sugar by 40 percent.”
4. Start habits early.
Parents—often pressed for time and money—sometimes give out sugary treats as a shortcut to getting compliance in their children. But moms and dads give the first sugar guidance to a new generation, so it is important to understand how information is transmitted and how parents can be helped. Professor Margaret Briley published research this year on how parents handle the checkout line and found that parents responded in a healthy way to 63 percent of food requests their children made.
“The critical time of development of food behaviors occurs in a child at the ages of three to five years,” says Briley. “Parents who do not give in to kid-foods, such as fried potatoes and sweets, but provide their child with the gift of good nutrition give their child one of the greatest gifts available for their entire life.”