Does Sugar Make You Fat?
Recent statistics report that the average American eats or drinks 130 pounds of sugar every year, something that plays a major role in the obesity crisis in the country. Current recommendations say to limit daily sugar intake to no more than 9.5 teaspoons, but the average American adult eats 22 teaspoons per day and the average American child eats 32 teaspoons per day. This picture isn’t just limited to the USA. Look at figures for the UK, Australia and a whole host of other western countries and it is a similar story. The government and medical authorities in the UK are so concerned they have even introduced a sugar tax. So, the question is, does sugar make you fat? The short answer is yes.
Sugar, like all foods, contains calories, and consuming more calories than you burn will make you fat. However, the real issue is the amount of fructose in sugar. Fructose gets metabolized by the liver, turns most of it into fat, and then releases that fat into the blood. Ordinary table sugar consists of 50% fructose, and ‘added sugars’ contain even higher amounts. To understand why this is a major contributor to being fat, we need to look at what happens when we eat sugar.
How Does Sugar Work in the Body?
Understanding how sugar works in the body gives you an insight into how it can contribute to weight gain. Sugar is made up of two molecules: glucose and fructose. Your body needs glucose, and produces it naturally, because it helps regulate your metabolism. Every cell in your body needs glucose for proper functioning. On the other hand, your body doesn’t produce fructose and the only cells that really need it reside in your liver. When you eat too much fructose, your liver turns it into fat, which is released into your bloodstream and can cause you to gain weight. Studies have also shown that sugar interferes with the healthy functioning of the liver, that can lead to liver damage.
There are several ways that fructose can make you fat. The first is that it hinders proper insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that is produced by your pancreas, that helps regulate the production of glucose throughout your body. When you eat a meal that is high in carbohydrates, insulin rushes in to balance the glucose, which is toxic in high amounts. Over time, this mechanism can “break” and your cells will produce more insulin than is necessary as they become resistant to its effects. This increase in insulin causes more fat to be released into your bloodstream, increasing the risk of becoming overweight.
A diet high in sugar can also interfere with proper leptin production. Leptin is a hormone in the body that “senses” the amount of fat in each of your cells and helps regulate your hunger as a response. When you inundate your body with fructose, otherwise known as sugar, leptin can’t perform its duty correctly, which means it doesn’t recognize that you have enough fat in your cells and tells your body that it should eat. And, as you know, eating too much is a sure-fire way to get fat.
Some healthier foods, primarily fruit, contain sugars that aren’t as much of a problem in terms of obesity as are added sugars. You probably know that items like cake, cookies, brownies, candy, chocolate bars, and other sweet desserts are loaded with sugar and they should be something you see as a treat rather than an everyday addition to your diet. However, you might be surprised to find that there are multiple foods that are an unexpected source of added sugars. When you don’t take these items into account when monitoring your sugar intake, it’s very easy to consume too much of the sweet stuff and find yourself gaining weight.
In addition to desserts, sugar is often added to jars of pasta sauce, canned soup, yogurt, barbecue sauce, ketchup, granola, protein bars, cereal bars, canned fruit, canned beans, breakfast cereal, oatmeal, bread, salad dressing, frozen dinners and chocolate milk. Some of these items are healthy choices, provided you are choosing options that don’t add a lot of sugar. One of the best ways to avoid the added sugars in pasta sauce, salad dressing, beans and soup, is to make your own, rather than buying the pre-made versions on store shelves. When it comes to oatmeal, canned fruit and breakfast cereal, opt for those that announce themselves to be “reduced” or “low” in sugar, which can help you cut your intake and control your weight.
A Word About Drinks
The Harvard School of Public Health calls sugary drinks, such as soda, sports drinks, fruit juice and energy drinks, one of the major contributors to America’s obesity crisis. The bottles and cans of these drinks that Americans consume contain more sugar than is recommended for an entire day and the larger ones can contain close to 700 calories. Because many people don’t account for liquid calories in their daily intake, it’s very easy to become overweight by consuming too many sweetened beverages.
In addition to the simple fact that sugary drinks load you up on calories and sugar, they don’t satisfy your appetite or fill you up in a nutritious way. For this reason, many people don’t compensate for their beverage intake by cutting back at mealtime. The calories in those drinks, combined with the calories eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, can quickly cause you to overdo it, and again, too many calories quickly leads to weight gain.
Reading Nutrition Labels
So, while you can assume that consuming too much sugar, whether in food or drinks, can lead to obesity, you have control over the situation. By reading labels and keeping track of your intake, you can stay within the daily intake recommendations and prevent fat gain as a result of a sugary diet.
One of the most important steps in this process is knowing what ingredients to look for since sugar isn’t always listed as such in the ingredients list of a given food. Sugar can appear as agave syrup, corn sweetener, fructose, dextrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, molasses, syrup or sucrose. So, just because you don’t see “sugar” listed doesn’t mean it isn’t packed with the sweet stuff. In fact, there are in excess of 60 names for sugar in all its various forms.
It’s also important to check how many grams of sugar the food in question contains by looking at the nutritional information on the food’s packaging. You can assume that some of the sugar in items like fruit and dairy products is naturally occurring and shouldn’t deter you from including them in a well-balanced diet. At the same time, considering the total sugar content per serving can help you determine if the item is a good fit for your diet or not.
Research reported in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews reports that sugar intake can sometimes mimic the behavior and brain chemical changes that occur with substance abuse. Because eating or drinking something with sugar in it appears to activate the same brain passageways as drugs, it makes sense that people can become addicted to sugar. When it’s consumed, the brain releases feel good hormones like dopamine and opiates, which is the primary reason why a person continues to seek out their substance of choice, in this case sugar. An addiction to sugar can certainly make a person fat if it’s not controlled.
Controlling Your Sugar Intake
Now that you know that too much sugar can indeed cause you to become fat, it’s a good idea to learn how to take control and stop eating so much of it. As you’ve already learned, it’s vital to read food labels and forgo items loaded with sugar. Other easy ways to keep yourself within the daily recommendations include choosing whole, fresh foods as often as possible since processed foods tend to be higher in sugar than those closest to their natural form. Cutting back on sweetened drinks in favor of water is another simple way to dramatically cut your sugar intake. Beware of the high sugar content in alcohol too. When you do decide to indulge, be sure to account for the amount of sugar in the food or drink, as well as the calories it contains.
When it comes to gaining weight, the bottom line is that you’re probably consuming more calories than you’re burning. Whether those calories come from sugar or not is beside the point. Any diet high in calories, no matter where they’re coming from, will cause you to gain weight. However, cutting back on added sugar is an important step if you are looking to lose weight. Choosing wholesome, natural foods with minimum processing will always deliver more nutrition and health than a diet containing a lot of processed foods.