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The bitter truth about sugar

When someone describes a meal as “a heart attack on a plate,” what do you imagine? Steak and eggs with a side of fries perhaps? The more current picture might be a plate of donuts partnered with a 16-ounce regular soda. 

Sugar. It’s the latest edible to catch the eye of researchers and health reporters. Some say it is a greater risk to high blood pressure than salt and claim it can cause death by heart attack. Those are pretty serious accusations, so we did some investigative reporting ourselves to discover the truth about sugar and your health. Here’s what we learned.

1. Sugar doesn’t cause high blood pressure or heart disease, obesity does. 

“Some studies indicate that diets with lots of sugar lower levels of good HDL cholesterol,” says Joan Salge Blake, RD, clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But these studies show an association not cause and effect.” What we do know continues Blake is that obesity can cause cardiovascular disease.  “Sugar isn’t bad,” she says, ”But too much sugar can be. Excess calories are the problem, causing obesity, which raises blood pressure and leads to diabetes and heart disease.”

2. Sugar does not put more fat on your figure than other foods.

Strictly speaking, a calorie is a calorie when it comes to weight gain. “All foods contribute calories to the diet, and if you eat excess calories no matter what the source, you will gain weight,” points out Susana Sokolovsky, PhD, CFS, a certified food scientist and vice president of the Argentine Association of Food Technologists. 

With the facts now in front of you, what should your dietary sugar strategy be? 

Though sugar in of itself is not the devil, that doesn’t give you license to pack your daily menu with pancakes and pasta (keep in mind that all carbohydrates are converted to simple sugars during digestion). You’ve heard the expression “empty calories”: High-sugar foods have little to no powerhouse nutrients, and when you are counting calories, you want to make sure those calories really count.

1. Eat whole foods.

Consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and whole-grain products provides a wealth of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients to keep you healthy.

2. Just choose water.

Regular soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks are the number one source of added sugars in our diets says Blake, and it’s easy to swallow a lot of empty calories in a beverage. It goes down fast and doesn’t create satiety the way foods do. A 16-ounce regular orange soda has 238 calories; you’d have to eat 3 1/2 3-inch navel oranges to get the same. 

3. Enjoy sweet treats only on special occasions.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with cake, candy, and cookies,” says Blake, “but when did we decide that we can eat them every day?”

No, that donut isn’t going to kill you, but eating too many of them,  in conjunction with an unbalanced diet, could lead to more serious health problems

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