Recently, sugar — and how much we’re consuming — has been making headlines.

When it comes to heart health (and overall health) butter used to be the bad guy. Not anymore. Now, all eyes are on sugar — and, in particular, added sugar.

The problem isn’t necessarily sugar itself. It’s just how much of it we’re consuming on a daily basis.

The average American consumes 94 grams of added sugar a day, which works out to about 23.5 teaspoons every day — roughly the equivalent of two-and-a-half cans of Coke a day. Meanwhile, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of just six teaspoons a day for women and nine for men.

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First, a quick explainer: There are two types of sugar. Glucose, found in bread and pasta, comes from carbohydrates. Fructose, on the other hand, is found in fruits and vegetables. It’s usually harmless, but in high quantities from the added sugars in processed foods, it can have harmful effects on your health.

The recent spike in added sugar consumption has contributed to a range of health issues, including obesity, metabolic disease, insulin resistance and fatty liver. Added sugar offers zero health benefits and empty calories — along with other detrimental effects on skin, memory and overeating. And, to make matters worse, research shows that sugar creates a need for even more sugar, meaning you can become dependent on it and experience symptoms of withdrawal without it.

“Fructose fails to stimulate hormones, like insulin, that are important in helping us feel full,” said Kathleen Page, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC. Dr. Page, who also is an endocrinologist at Keck Medicine of USC, was a researcher on a study that found eating added sweeteners such as fructose may promote feeding behavior.

While programs to temporarily eliminate added sugars, such as Whole30, are gaining popularity, they’re far from a long-term solution. Not only do they require serious willpower, but added sugar can also be difficult to avoid. There are some obvious sources — such as soda, candy, cake, cookies, ice cream, sweetened milks and breakfast cereals — but added sugars also can find their way into your diet through much sneakier means, such as whole-wheat bread and yogurt.

The best option may be to cut back. First, check the ingredient list of any processed food. And, when you do, be aware of added sugars in disguise. They can hide as corn sweetener, corn syrup, raw sugar, molasses, malt sugar, invert sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate and sugar molecules that ends in “-ose” (such as dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose).

Next, be aware of natural sources of sugar. They typically appear in both fruits and milk products, so any sort of food that lists sugar and doesn’t contain either must have added sugar in it. Sweetened cereals are a good example of this.

Eliminating all added sugars from your diet has obvious benefits for your health, such as weight loss and better skin. But, like most strict diets, it’s not sustainable over the long-term, especially since research has found that the most common substitute, artificial sweeteners, aren’t much better for your health.

So your best bet is to gradually cut back on added sugar. Consider analyzing ingredient lists and tracking how many teaspoons of added sugar you eat each day to ensure you’re maxing out at six teaspoons for women or nine for men, per day. Or set a goal for under, say, 10 teaspoons a day, and work your way down. It may seem drastic, but reducing added sugar intake could be the single best thing you do for your health.

By Deanna Pai

If you’re in the Southern California area and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment to schedule an appointment.