Put the Sugar Down and Back Away

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It's not just the white stuff waiting to be added to your coffee or cereal or cookie recipes. It seems to be everywhere. Sure it's in sodas and fruits, but also vegetables and dairy products.

But there are those lingering questions. Are sugars simply the sweet touch that makes the medicine go down, or can sugars just be plain bad for you? Could it be a root cause of obesity and diabetes?

Unfortunately the answer is yes. Certainly there is great concern about those health problems.

"The statistics in the United States are approaching 60 percent overweight and obese, children included. So the numbers are just growing more and more," Dietitian Phyllis Woodson, of the EVMS Strelitz Diabetes Center in Norfolk, Virginia, explained.

Natural Sweeteners or Natural Fatteners?

Of course, it's not that simple because each person responds differently to natural sweeteners. Those factors include age, health status, and even genetics.

And those sweeteners vary, too, ranging from standard table sugar to honey to corn syrup. Because that product is sweeter and cheaper than old fashioned sugar, it's become the nation's number one way to sweeten.

Woodson says that number-one status and its possible connection to the nation's health crisis should make us question corn syrup.

After all, we consume about 150 calories a day from corn sweeteners, a fact that worries Woodson.

"Those persons who are overdoing it may get almost double that amount. So that's 300 and some calories -- certainly enough calories to cause weight gain -- every month until they just start gaining more and more weight," she said.

Nutritionist Janet Starr Hull, who works in the Dallas area, goes further -- saying just eat fresh corn and skip the corn syrup.

"It's an unnatural insertion of an unnatural form of an unnatural sugar. High fructose corn syrup was a mistake from the beginning," she warned.

While food scientist Woodrow Monte, retired from Arizona State University, is no big fan of corn syrup, he doesn't believe it and regular sugar are causing the obesity. He finds the problem elsewhere.

"I think the truth of the matter is it's the artificial sweetener aspartame that's caused the majority of our problems relative to health," he said.

Sugar vs. Fiber

Yet even eating excess fruit can be a problem -- too many calories crowding out the protein, fats, and vitamins gained from choosing a variety of foods.

Whatever the sweetener, experts say look at the nutrition facts. Specifically, that's the way to assess sugar content. If you grab potato salad from the grocery shelf, it may have five grams of sugar. But it also may have several grams of dietary fiber that helps balance that out.

Fiber helps keep blood sugar in check and thus reduces the urge to overeat. That's one of the advantages of fruits and vegetables -- and especially peas, lentils, and beans. They may have as much as seven grams of fiber per serving, a significant amount.

Woodson, who has worked with thousands of diabetics, recommends beans and their culinary cousins.

"We would suggest maybe having that as your starch a couple times a week -- maybe especially in the evening meal so you can go to bed with a better blood sugar," Woodson said. 

That means you could wake up with a better blood sugar level and start the day better off.

Alternative Natural Sweeteners

Then there are more natural sweeteners. For instance, did you ever hear of agave syrup from the Southwest? Using it as a sweetener is much better than what it's known for, that is - turning it into tequila!

Susan Daniel, general manager of Good Foods Grocery stores in Richmond, Va., likes agave.

"It's light in its flavor profile, so don't feel like they need to make a lot of changes in their recipes to incorporate that," she said.

Daniel says there's also a growing demand for specialty honeys.

"When you're eating honey that's local like that, it can help boost your immune system toward those things that can also be allergens," she said.

That is, local honey may help reduce local allergies. Honey is fairly high in fructose, but it's thickness and flavor discourage overuse.

Plus, there's unrefined cane sugar like Sucanat, old-fashioned maple syrup, super-sweet stevia leaf originally from South America, and low calorie sugar alcohols like xylitol. Sugar alcohols are now popping up in supermarkets -- like pies made with maltitol.

Moderation is Key

Certainly, alternatives can help with the sugar problem, but the obesity epidemic is bigger than sweetness alone. Woodson said about half of her patients are not really into sweets.

"But they will admit they eat too much fruit, they drink too much milk, they eat too much starch, they're into food excesses," she said.

In other words, many people overeat a number of food items. That can add up to a big hit of sugar and calories.

After all, Woodson encourages patients to remember that the goal is beyond sugar intake. 

"The three things we would tell a young person over time: number one, don't gain weight; number two, don't gain weight; and number three, don't gain weight," she said.

In keeping weight normal, many experts suggest a moderate amount of any natural sweetener is fine.

Monte agrees, but with one caution.

"Any time you consume something sweet, it is going to encourage your appetite, you're going to want to eat more of something," he said.

Realistically, you can't get rid of all sugars, nor would you want to because it is fuel. But you can regulate the quantity and quality of your sweeteners for better health.

*Original broadcast October 12, 2008.

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Gailon Totheroh

Gailon Totheroh

CBN News Science and Medical Reporter

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