Addicted to Sugar!

I recently gave a talk on childhood nutrition. My holistic approach is sometimes a bit unconventional, but it’s grounded in science. As a functional medicine physician, I’ve taken a special interest in nutrition. Beyond that, my experiences as a mother have pushed me to learn more. While much of the research presented here is directed toward children, these principles apply to adults as well.

I’m surprised by how much misinformation there is about nutrition, even among physicians and well-educated parents. Hopefully this helps to clear some things up.

In this 4 part series, I’ll address:

This week my focus is on that massive intake of sugar that is one of the #1 drivers of chronic disease in this country.

Sugar is everywhere, and linked to chronic disease.

Sugar is ubiquitous in our food supply, in everything from ketchup to bread. If you’ve ever tried a sugar elimination diet and read labels closely, I’m sure you’ve figured out how hard it is to completely avoid sugar in its many forms (high fructose corn syrup, honey, fructose, dextrose, sucrose, fruit juice concentrate, syrup).

According to the National Cancer Institute, data from 2001-2004 indicates that the average American consumed about 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day. Even worse, teenage males (age 14-19 years old) were eating closer to 34 teaspoons a day!

Data from 2007-2010 looks better, indicating average consumption of 17 teaspoons a day and peaking in teenage males at 25 teaspoons a day. Still, this is WAY TOO MUCH!

Excessive sugar consumption is not only linked with cavities, but with chronic disease, including:

  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • fatty liver disease
  • high cholesterol

We are now seeing increasing rates of these chronic diseases in teenagers! I saw this first hand during my residency training in inner city San Antonio, Texas. Obesity in childhood is commonplace there, and I routinely diagnosed teenagers with pre-diabetes and even diabetes. Such a tragedy when in the past this was an “adult onset” condition.

Sugar is a drug.

Sugar stimulates the brain’s reward centers through the neurotransmitter dopamine just like other addictive drugs. People can also develop a tolerance to sugar, meaning they need more and more to satisfy their sweet tooth. Some people are genetically more prone to sugar addition. So avoiding sugar is not as easy as using “self control.”

Do you know the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for sugar?

In the Unites States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) developed Daily Values (%DV) to help consumers determine the level of various nutrients in a standard serving of food. Do you know what the %DV is for sugar? Read this label. Do you see it?

Are you surprised that sugar doesn’t even have a recommended DV? The good news is: there’s been progress. In July 2015, the FDA issued a supplemental proposed rule that would require the %DV for added sugars.

Luckily, we have other definitive guidelines to rely on.

In August 2009, The American Heart Association (AHA) released guidelines published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association with the following recommendations:

  • Most women should consume no more than 25 grams, or ~6 teaspoons of added sugar a day.
  • Most men should consume no more than 37.5 grams, or ~9 teaspoons a day
  • Children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 12 grams, or 3 teaspoons a day.

WAIT… do you say 12 grams a day?? If you are giving your child almost any packaged or processed foods, you will likely exceed this.

In March 2015, the World Health Organization published similar guidelines for sugar intake for adults and children. WHO advocates limiting “free sugar” consumption to roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day.

Note that both of these recommendations refer to free or added sugars, which include honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. This does not include the sugar naturally present in whole fruits and vegetables, or milk. Although I think it’s worth noting that an 8 oz serving of milk has 12 grams of sugar in the form of lactose.

Added sugars in food really add up.

Unfortunately, the food industry makes this tricky for us to navigate. Don’t be fooled by foods packaged and marketed as “health foods.” One product that really gets me is a green juice called Odwalla’s Superfood Smoothie. One 15.2 oz bottle has 50 grams of added sugar! Yes, it’s all fruit juice. But that’s still a burden on our bodies. Based on AHA’s recommendation for women, that’s 200 %DV for sugar. For children who are recommended to consume less that 12g sugar a day, this is 400% DV! How would consumer behavior change if THIS was printed on the label?


I challenge you to count your sugar intake at home. As a reference, 1 tsp sugar = 4.2 grams = 16 calories.

Eat less sugar… you’re already sweet enough!

If you missed Part I on Pesticides, GMOs and Organic Foods, you can read that here. If you missed Part II on Food Allergies & Sensitivities, you can read that here. If you missed Part III on Dairy, Calcium and Vitamin D, you can read that here.

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I'm a functional medicine physician, gluten-free foodie, holistic mom & yogi. I think physicians should be role models when it comes to nutrition and healthy living. This is where I share that passion. Thanks for joining me!

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