For those of us with a sweet tooth - which appears to be most of the country - the newest research carries some bitter news: Americans eat way too much sugar, and it's killing us.
In one of the biggest studies to examine the issue, researchers from the government and two universities found a link between high sugar consumption and fatal heart disease. The study was published February 3 in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The culprit, they believe, is all the sugar added to a wide range of beverages and foods - soda and desserts, obviously, but also less obvious foods such as packaged bread, pasta sauce and salad dressing.
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And it's not just because sugar makes us fat. In the study, even normal-weight adults had a higher risk for death if they ate a lot of sugar. And it didn't take much - even two sodas a day substantially increased the risk. For those who ate the most sugar, their risk of dying prematurely from heart disease tripled over those who ate the least.
"Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick," Laura Schmidt, a health-policy specialist at the University of California, San Francisco told the Associated Press. In an editorial accompanying the study, she said there has been a major shift in how scientists view the role of a high-sugar diet in a number of diseases, not just obesity.
According to the study, Americans have cut back a little on our sugary ways. A decade ago sugar made up 17 percent of our daily calories; between 2005 and 2010, that dropped to 15 percent. The American Heart Association says we should aim for 10 percent, or about 100 calories a day from sugar for women, 150 for men.
Still, it's tough fighting that craving for something sweet, says Washington, D.C., dietitian Katherine Tallmadge, author of Diet Simple.
"Sweets light up the pleasure centers of our brain, similar to addictive substances," Tallmadge said in an email. "The more sweets you eat, the more you crave."
Although some people go cold turkey or try the detox route to reduce their urge for sweets, you can slowly but steadily reduce the amount of sugar you eat each day to help retrain your brain.
To tame your sugar craving, Tallmadge offers these tips:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. To keep your serotonin levels stable, eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains at each meal. These are complex, more slowly digested carbohydrates that keep you from craving simple carbohydrates such as sweets.
- Get enough sunshine. To reduce sweet cravings tied to a change in the season, especially in fall and winter, try to get 30 minutes of sunshine each day. Take a walk in the morning or at lunch. A walk can also distract you from those temporary cravings, which generally last only 10 to 20 minutes.
- Try a different crunch. Choose foods with a satisfying crunch or natural sweetness, like apples, popcorn, pumpkin seeds or a handful of nuts.
- Reduce stress. If you are driven to eat sweets, it could be a signal that something else is bothering you - stress, boredom, sleep deprivation, anxiety or depression. Try to reduce stress and anxiety by exercising, meditating or talking with loved ones. If necessary, seek professional counseling.
- Think mini size. Allow yourself a sweet, but keep it small. Aim for something no more than 10 percent of your total calories per day. That would be 200 calories for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, or about two miniature Reese's peanut butter cups or four small squares of Ghirardelli dark chocolate. You might even get away with one splurge a week - no more, though.
- Don't overbuy. Keeping a lot of sweets around tempts us to eat more than we planned.
- Grab some gum. Chewing a piece of sugarless gum after a meal can often give us enough of a sweet hit to satisfy our urge for dessert.
Photo: Richard Drury/Getty Images
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