How Sweet It Is… Or Is It?

Dentists and the World Health Organization agree that the last thing we need is to add more sugar to our diets.

In early 2014, health experts from around the world formed a group called Action on Sugar to help the public become more sugar-aware and avoid products full of hidden sugars in order to “tackle and reverse the obesity and diabetes epidemic.”  On the group’s website, one of the founders, Simon Capewell, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool, U.K., calls added sugar “the new tobacco” when describing its damaging effects on health.

Is added sugar really this scary?  Dr. Jack McLister, ODA President-Elect, thinks so.  “This is not fear-mongering because increased sugar intake is a major contributing factor in childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes in adults.”

According to Stats Canada’s 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey – Nutrition (these are the latest figures available), the average Canadian consumes about 26 teaspoons of sugar per day.  While that total includes all our daily sugar – the naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables and dairy products, as well as the added sugar from sweetened processed foods, candy, cookies, pop and that teaspoonful we sneak into our morning mug of java – it’s still a heaping bowlful.

sugar cube and spoon sweet sweetener

What’s all that sweet stuff doing to us?  And, more specifically, what’s it doing to our teeth?  “I see a greater incidence of cavities and swollen gums in patients who have a higher concentration of sugar in their diets,” says ODA Vice-President Dr. LouAnn Visconti.  And the trouble doesn’t stop there.

A  recent study by scientists in the U.K., published in the British Medical Journal in July 2015, showed that consuming sugar-sweetened drinks increases a person’s likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.   And people with diabetes, explains Dr. Visconti, a specialist in orthodontics who practises in Timmins, “are more prone to infections, like gum disease.  Also, high blood sugar levels increase the risk of tooth decay, fungal infections and dry mouth.”

It’s not just dentists who are urging us to kick the sugar habit.  Earlier this year, the World Health Organization published guidelines recommending that adults and children worldwide limit the added sugar in their diets to less than 10 percent – or, better still, five percent – of their total daily energy intake.

Based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet – Health Canada’s recommendation for a 10-year-old male with a low activity level – five percent of calories from added sugar translates to 25 grams of sugar or less than six teaspoons per day.

Dr. McLister, Assistant Clinical Professor at Schulich Dentistry in London, puts this neatly into perspective: “One can of pop contains the equivalent of nine teaspoons of sugar, while one tablespoon of ketchup contains one teaspoon of sugar.”

boy-choosing-between-junk-and-health-food

But here’s where sugar can get confusing.  We know that candy, cakes, pop and processed foods – all stuffed with added sugar in its various forms – are bad for us, but fresh fruit and milk contain sugars.  Do we avoid those, too?

Definitely not, says Rita Barbieri, a registered dietitian with EatRight Ontario.  “Naturally occurring sugar – in fruit, milk and some vegetables – is a beneficial source of carbohydrate,” Barbieri explains.  “These foods contain natural sugars, along with other key nutrients.  For instance, as well as lactose – its natural sugar – milk provides protein, vitamins A and D, zinc, calcium and other nutrients.  Fruits and vegetables come with fibre, antioxidants and various vitamins and minerals, depending on the variety.”

To make things sweetly simple, try shopping around the edges of the supermarket during your next trip, avoiding the processed and packaged foods in the centre aisles.  That way, you’ll load up on fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, lean meat and fish, and you’ll be well on your way to avoiding added sugars.

Seriously Supersized

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Remember when your parents or grandparents told you to eat everything on your plate?  So why weren’t we all obese?  It might be, in part, because, we’re eating more.

According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, fast-food restaurants in 1955 offered pop in only a one-size-fits-all seven-ounce portion.  Now, the largest size at some Canadian fast-food joints brims over at almost 25 ounces.

And the sugar in those drinks?  Drink every drop of a regular pop back in 1955 and you’d be consuming about seven teaspoons of sugar.  A supersized pop today contains about 20 teaspoons of sugar!

Sugar Showdown
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Added sugar can tiptoe into our diets without us realizing it.  We asked EatRight Ontario’s Rita Barbieri, a registered dietitian, for some equally sneaky ways to shut it out:

  • You can’t eat what’s not in your kitchen, so give your supermarket’s cookie and pop aisles a pass.
  • Choose snacks that pack a punch of protein and/or whole-grain carbs that leave you feeling satisfied and full: hummus and veggies, plain yogurt with fresh fruit added, a small bowl of high-fibre cereal and low-fat milk or a small handful of mixed unsalted nuts are all good choices.
  • Discuss healthy food options with your children and talk about why some foods are not good choices.

Written by Julia Aitken.  Reprinted with permission of the Ontario Dental Association and YourOralHealth.ca Magazine, 2015.

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