Are Canadians eating too much sugar?
Oct 4, 2011 – 1:30 PM ET | Last Updated: Oct 4, 2011 1:51 PM ET
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Just a few sweets can seem innocuous enough, but what about when you find yourself reaching for that tenth handful?
Canadians like their sugar. According to last week’s Statistics Canada report, Canadians consume an average of about 110 grams of sugar per day, the equivalent of about 26 teaspoons. But since the report did not differentiate between different types of sugar, it is left to tease out the implications of this new data. Let’s give it a shot:
TYPES OF SUGAR
Sugar finds its way into our diet naturally through fruits, some vegetables and unsweetened dairy products. It also creeps in as added or refined sugar via candy, pop and baked goods, as well as some types of cereal, flavoured yogourt, chocolate milk or soy milk, canned fruit and fruit drinks. While the research differentiating between the effects of naturally occurring vs. added sugar is still lacking, it is generally accepted that so-called natural sugars are a better, healthier choice than refined or added sugars. Part of the reason could be metabolic — many of the foods that contain natural sugars have a lesser impact on blood sugar compared with many sweetened foods — and part of it could be nutritional, since foods with naturally containing sugars are often rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients such as protein or fibre.
HOW MUCH ARE WE EATING?
According to the new Statscan report, which used data from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, one in every five calories that Canadians consume comes from sugar. About a third of that intake is derived from vegetables and fruit, but some 35% comes from what is described as the “other” food category, namely the category that includes sweets and soft drinks. This means the average Canadian consumes about 38.5 grams, or 10 teaspoons, from that “other” category per day.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
So is this a lot or a little? Unfortunately, the lack of consistent guidelines makes it hard to give a clear answer. The World Health Organization recommends that no more than 10% of our total calories come from added or refined sugar, which translates to no more than about 50 grams per day for a person consuming 2,000 calories per day (there are four calories in a gram of sugar; note that a typical can of pop contains between 36-42 grams of sugar). Since the Statscan survey found that we consume 38.5 grams of added sugar from candy and pop, you could argue there is little need for alarm.
But not everyone would agree. In 2009, the American Heart Association came out with new guidelines around sugar intake that are much less liberal than the WHO. The AHA recommendations are based on what they deem discretionary calories, or calories from foods that aren’t vital to meeting our nutrient needs. According to their data, a person consuming 2,000 calories per day needs to eat about 1,750 calories per day from such healthful foods as fruits, vegetables, fish, eggs, beans, yogourt and nuts to meet all of their nutrient needs. That leaves only a fraction of calories for what you might call “the sins”: unhealthy fats, added sugars and booze. Give each of the three a piece of this limited pie, and you’re left with enough room for a mere 32 grams, or eight teaspoons of added sugar per day for an average person.
So, by the AHA standards, which in my opinion are much more reflective of the current state of research than the older WHO and IOM guidelines, Canadians are consuming too much sugar from the “other” category alone. But here’s the rub: the Statscan report does not differentiate between added and naturally occurring sugars that fall within the traditional four food groups (grains, vegetables and fruit, meat and alternatives, and milk products). That means that added sugars found in cereals, flavoured oatmeal, sweetened yogourt, fruit cocktails and chocolate milk are not included in the 38.5 grams that we already consume every day from “other” foods. Once you factor all of those extra sugars in, then our total intake will undoubtedly jump, probably beyond the more liberal WHO guidelines.
As mentioned, sweets and added sugars crowd out more nutritious food, but they also add unwanted extra calories to otherwise nutritious food, such as yogourt or oatmeal. Beyond that, added sugars can harm our hearts by driving up triglycerides (a type of fat circulating in our blood stream), and possibly contribute to elevated blood pressure. Perhaps even more concerning is emerging evidence that also suggests excess sugar contributes to inflammation in our body, which over time may play a role in the development of chronic disease. And, finally, sugar has an addictive quality that tends to leave the eater craving more.
-Jennifer Sygo is a dietitian in private practice at Cleveland Clinic Canada, which offers executive physicals, prevention and wellness counselling and personal health care management in Toronto.