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The Downside of Having a Sweet Tooth

The latest findings underscore the advice from experts on diet, health and weight control to avoiding drinking one’s calories, except perhaps for a glass of wine with dinner. And, it turns out, serious health risks are not limited to liquid sources of sugar; the sugars found in processed solid foods, including many that do not even taste sweet, can be hazards, too, if overconsumed.

Sugar-containing processed foods are ubiquitous and can add up quickly for unsuspecting consumers. In the documentary “That Sugar Film,” the filmmaker quickly developed health problems after eating “healthy” foods like cereal and juice containing 40 teaspoons of sugar a day, the average Australian’s intake. (Americans average 42.5 teaspoons of sugar a day.) The film noted that if all sugar-containing food items were removed from supermarket shelves, only about 20 percent of products would remain.

To clarify the effects of our high-sugar diet, I consulted an expert, Kimber L. Stanhope, a researcher in nutritional biology at the University of California, Davis, whose work is free of industry support and funded primarily by the National Institutes of Health. In a comprehensive 34-page review of research published in Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences in 2016, she linked consumption of added sugar to metabolic disease — cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — as well as high blood levels of uric acid, a risk factor for kidney stones and gout.

In studies done in her lab among young adults consuming their normal diets, the risk for developing heart disease and kidney stones rose in direct proportion to the amount of high-fructose corn syrup they consumed. Diet and health data from a major national survey showed that “the average level of added sugar consumption in the U.S., 15 percent of daily calories, is associated with an 18 percent increase in risk for cardiovascular disease mortality.” A sweet death, indeed.

One problem with the studies done in Dr. Rippe’s lab, Dr. Stanhope said, is that the sugars tested were added to milk, which itself diminishes the risk of metabolic disease and thus can mask the damaging effects of fructose.

“Fructose and glucose are not metabolized the same way in the human body,” which can account for the adverse effects of fructose, Dr. Stanhope said. Glucose is metabolized in cells throughout the body and used for energy. Fructose is metabolized in the liver, resulting in fat production and raising the risk of heart and fatty-liver disease. In addition, she explained, “fructose doesn’t stimulate the satiety-promoting substance leptin,” prompting some people to overconsume it, especially in soft drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup, and other tempting foods as well.

Following consumption of fructose, brain studies showed that people respond positively to pictures of highly palatable foods like cookies, candy and ice cream.

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