This content originally appeared on Everyday Health. Republished with permission.
By Lisa Rapaport
An extensive new research review offers a snapshot of just how bad added sugars can be for our health, outlining more than four dozen health problems associated with high consumption of added sugar in our foods and drinks.
The research review, published April 5 in The BMJ, examined data from 73 meta-analyses with a total of more than 8,600 studies focused on the potential negative health outcomes of excessive sugar in our diets. They focused on added sugars — the sweeteners added during food processing that can be found in many sodas, foods, juices, and syrups — and not on the sugars that occur naturally in whole fruits or vegetables.
“A little sugar in the diet is okay, but the amount of sugar in the typical Western diet tends to be too high to support our health in the long run,” says Maya Adam, MD, a health behavior researcher and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford University in California, who wasn’t involved in the new analysis.
“Eating too much sugar leads to a collection of problems that aggravate each other,” Dr. Adam adds. “Overweight and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are the first ones we think of, but high levels of dietary sugar also lead to chronic inflammation, and that negatively affects almost all of our body systems.”
Current U.S. Recommendations for Sugar Intake May Be Too High
Added sugars include table sugar, artificial sweeteners like Splenda or Sweet-n-Low, sugars found in honey and syrups, and sugars in concentrated fruit and vegetable juices, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Food labels in the United States list what’s known as “total sugars,” which includes added sugars as well as sugars naturally present in dairy and whole fruits and vegetables, according to the FDA.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10 percent of total daily calories, according to the FDA. That means, for example, that if you eat 2,000 calories a day, no more than 200 calories, or about 50 grams of added sugars, should be in everything you eat and drink that day.
One limitation of the analysis is that many of the included studies used different methods for assessing total sugar and added sugar intake, as well as for monitoring various health outcomes associated with sugar, the researchers note. Another potential drawback is that most of the included studies focused on endocrine and metabolic disorders, cancer, and cardiovascular disease — making it possible that some other health risks may have been overlooked.
Beyond this, the researchers concede that the evidence quality for many studies in the analysis was moderate or low, an indication that additional research may be needed to get a more conclusive picture of the precise risks of added sugar.
Still, based on the wide range of health issues associated with added sugars, the study authors recommend that people limit their intake to less than 25 grams a day, or about 6 teaspoons of table sugar. The research team also recommends that people limit consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages to one serving per week, or a single 12-ounce can of soda.
“While sugar-sweetened beverages may be some of the worst offenders when it comes to added sugars’ negative effect on health, the findings of this study also highlight that it’s not just intake of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda that is associated with adverse health outcomes, but also total dietary free [added] sugars, which can be found in desserts and other processed foods, as well as honey and fruit juice,” says Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, a behavioral scientist and assistant professor at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, who wasn’t involved in the new analysis.
How to Reduce Added Sugar in Your Diet
If you have a sweet tooth, the best way to get sugars in your diet is from whole foods and vegetables, Adam says. Unsweetened dairy and nut milks are another good source of naturally occurring sugars in your diet, Adam adds.
When you buy packaged foods, you should also look for added sugars, even on products that you might not think of as dessert, like breads, breakfast cereals, and sports drinks, because those items can sometimes be loaded with added sugars, Adam says. And even if you don’t have the patience to calculate the exact proportion of your daily calories that comes from added sugars, you can still use the labels to help make healthier choices.
“Always read the labels on packaged foods — just to know how much sugar they contain,” Adam says. “If you don’t want to calculate your sugar intake, avoid foods where sugar is one of the first ingredients, including sugar under different names, such as ingredients that end in -ose or any kinds of syrup.”