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The Truth About Sugar

Can you get addicted to sugar? Do you need to quit it cold turkey? Here are expert answers.

Can sugar worsen cholesterol? continued...

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), people who ate the largest amounts of added sugar had the highest blood triglyceride levels and the lowest HDL (good) cholesterol levels. That study also showed that eating lots of sugar more than tripled the odds of having low HDL cholesterol levels, a strong risk factor for heart disease.

In contrast, people who ate the least sugar had the lowest triglyceride levels and highest HDL levels, a protective factor against heart disease.

But "the study doesn’t prove that added sugars cause dyslipidemia,” says Johnson, who wasn't involved in the JAMA study.

Johnson says that to prove that sugar causes problems with blood fats, scientists would have to conduct a clinical trial in which some people ate a diet high in added sugar and others ate a diet low in added sugar. Then researchers would track their triglyceride and cholesterol levels. Such a study would be expensive and hard to carry out, she says.

However, Johnson points out that weight did not explain the JAMA findings. “Obesity is obviously related to dyslipidemia, but based on the JAMA paper, the added sugars had an independent effect, separate and distinct from the added sugars’ impact on weight," she says.

Does sugar cause diabetes?

"Eating sugar per se does not cause diabetes," Johnson says. But large, epidemiological research has shown an association between intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and diabetes, she says.

The real culprit may be obesity. "It may be because the sugar-sweetened beverages are associated with higher BMIs or associated with overweight and obesity, which we know is a risk factor for diabetes," Johnson says.

Is sugar affecting children's health?

Pediatricians are concerned that too much sugar is in their young patients' diets, Kavey says. But again, sugar by itself is not the problem, she says, but rather the excess pounds.

"The reason that we think of it as a problem is because of the big rise in obesity in childhood, and that rise has occurred over the same time period that there's been a major increase in the amount of simple sugar that children consume," Kavey says. Juices, sodas, sweetened cereals, cookies, and candy are common sources of sugar in children's diets.  

But other factors -- like spending a lot of sedentary time with computers rather than running around and playing -- may also contribute to childhood obesity.

What about the notion that sugar makes some children hyperactive?

"In my own experience, I know there are some children who are very sensitive to sugar. They really are quite wild after they have sugar," Kavey says. "But that's not proof. The literature on it is not conclusive at all."

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