Heart group: Cut back - way back - on extra sugar

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

DALLAS -- A spoonful of sugar? Americans are swallowing 22 teaspoons of sugar each day, and it's time to cut way back, the American Heart Association says.

Most of that added sugar comes from soft drinks and candy -- a whopping 355 calories, the equivalent of guzzling two cans of soda and eating a chocolate bar.

By comparison, most women should be getting no more than 6 teaspoons a day, or 100 calories, of added sugar -- the sweeteners and syrups that are added to foods during processing, preparation or at the table. For most men, the recommended limit is 9 teaspoons, or 150 calories, the heart group says.

The guidelines do not apply to naturally occurring sugars like those found in fruit, vegetables or dairy products.

Lori Pettet, assistant manager nutrition services at Saint Francis Medical Center said to concentrate on eating those healthy foods -- six servings of whole grains, two cups of fruit, two and a half cups of veggies, five to six ounces of meat and three cups of dairy products.

"Most of the time, if we focus on consuming all of these foods, we are full and don't need to supplement with candy and desserts," Pettet said in an e-mail interview.

Rachel K. Johnson, lead author of the statement published online in late August in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, said it was time to give specific advice on how much added sugar Americans should be getting, not just advising moderation.

"Take a good hard look at your diet," said Johnson, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington. "Figure out where the sources of added sugars are and think about how to cut back on that."

She said about 8 ounces of fruit-flavored yogurt has about 6 teaspoons of added sugar; 8 ounces of low-fat chocolate milk has about 4 teaspoons; a cup of frosted whole grain cereal has about 3 teaspoons.

The biggest culprits for the glut of sugar? Soft drinks by far, followed by candy, cakes, cookies and pies.

"Many people will grab a 32oz regular soda in the morning on the way to work. That soda has about 21 teaspoons of sugar or almost 1/2 cup of sugar in one drink," said Lea Anne Lambert, clinical nutrition manager at Southeast Missouri Hospital.

Pettet said four grams of sugar is one teaspoon, but because labels do not distinguish between natural and added sugars, some labels can be misleading. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a database for the added sugar in some foods.

To check for added sugar, look for a variety of ingredients including sugar, corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, molasses or evaporated cane juice on the label.

The heart group didn't recommend general limits on added sugar for children; a national health survey has shown that boys ages 14 to 18 consume an eye-popping 34 teaspoons of added sugar a day.

Lona Sandon, a dietitian at Dallas' University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said parents can help lower that sugar intake by getting soda out of the house, looking at how much sugar is in their children's cereal and substituting snacks like cookies with popcorn.

Johnson concedes sugar does play an important role in enhancing the taste of food, adding: "If you feel like, 'I just can't live with this low amount of sugar in my diet,' then what you need to do is up your energy needs."

In other words, she said, get moving. A man in his early 20s who walks more than three miles a day could consume about 288 calories, or about 18 teaspoons, of added sugar.

The statement says data indicates added sugar is contributing to Americans consuming too many discretionary calories -- the number of calories remaining after a person eats the foods needed to meet nutrient requirements.

On average, most women need about 1,800 calories a day and most men need about 2,200, Johnson said.

"Sugar by itself really provides no nutritive value other than calories," Lambert said. "As Americans' waist lines are increasing, cutting calories by cutting back on added sugar would be beneficial for one's health."

Southeast Missourian features editor Chris Harris contributed to this story.

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