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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.

Are some types of sugar better than others?

Celebrities and high-profile chefs have touted the benefits of replacing refined white sugar with purportedly more natural, healthier sugars, such as honey, maple syrup, or molasses.

But there's no truth to these common misconceptions, Johnson says. "In terms of something being inherently better about those sweeteners as opposed to table sugar or sucrose -- no." The bottom line: All are simple sugars.

"A calorie of sugar is a calorie of sugar, so whether you're getting it from white sugar or some other type of sweetener, you're still adding empty calories to your diet," Johnson says.  

However, there may be one redeeming quality, she says. "Some of those sweeteners -- like maple syrup, molasses, honey -- may have a stronger taste, so you might be able to get the sweetness that you want with less of it, using less calories."  

What about substituting artificial sweeteners? Despite public worries that they might cause cancer, "They've been approved as safe by the FDA and I think that they can be a good tool to lower the calories in your diet," Johnson says. "But you need to be careful that it's about the total calories. You always hear about the person who puts the non-nutritive sweetener in their coffee and then has a piece of cheesecake."

 

How much sugar does the average American eat?

Sugar shows up naturally in lots of foods, but those aren't the types of sugars in the spotlight. Instead, it's the sugar in the doughnuts and sodas or even in the maple syrup that we drizzle onto our pancakes. 

"We do know that Americans are consuming way too much added sugars," Johnson says. "These are the sugars that are added to foods in processing or preparation. They're not the naturally occurring sugars, like fructose in fruit or lactose in milk or dairy products."

Johnson led the team of experts that wrote the AHA's 2009 scientific statement on added sugars and cardiovascular health. The report pointed to sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks as the main source of added sugars in Americans' diets.

From 2001 to 2004, the report noted, Americans consumed lots of sugar: an average of 22 teaspoons a day, the equivalent of 355 calories. 

Eating too much sugar can create two main problems, Johnson says. "It either adds calories to your diet or it displaces other nutritious foods. Most Americans could benefit from reducing the amount of added sugars in their diet."

However, none of the experts who spoke to WebMD advocated that people try to purge all added sugars from their diets. By itself, sugar is not a risky food, says Rae-Ellen W. Kavey, MD, MPH, a pediatrics professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. "The focus should be on a healthful approach," she says, "not people rushing to one side or the other."

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