Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Sugar: Not such a sweet heart

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A study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine last week that got everyone all worked up! In case you somehow missed it, sugar is the latest white food to be blamed for obesity. While this study didn’t look at obesity it still added a whole whack (that’s a real unit of measurement, right?) of fuel to the fire of those railing against sugar.

The study looked at the data from NHANES a huge long-term US health and nutrition study and concluded that those who are consuming diets with more than 25% of calories from added sugars are significantly more likely to perish from heart disease than are those who are consuming less than 25% of their daily calories from added sugars.

Of course, there are the usual caveats with this sort of research. They relied on food frequency questionnaires which are notoriously inaccurate and put much of the research based on them in question. A little aside: I used to work as an interviewer for a large Canadian statistical agency and I wouldn’t trust any of the nutrition information we collected. I mean, vegetable intake was determined by asking questions such as “how often do you eat carrots?”. I think we asked about consumption of three kinds of vegetables (including potatoes which were meant to exclude fried and potato chips) and “other vegetables” to determine total vegetable intake. People could answer on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Interviewees often seemed confused about hot to answer the questions and I often wondered to myself what people were eating when, based on their answers, they seemed to eat one carrot a month and a slice of bread everyday. Anyway… let’s put aside the fact that these studies are flawed. Let’s pretend that we do actually know how many calories people are consuming every day from sugar. Can we be sure that the increase in heart disease is attributable to sugar consumption? Perhaps it’s due to displacement of other foods. If someone is consuming 25% of their daily calories from sugar that either means that they’re consuming an excessive number of calories and obtaining adequate quantities of required nutrients, they’re consuming excess calories but not meeting nutrient requirements, or they’re consuming reasonable amounts of calories and not meeting nutrient requirements. Odds are, if they’re getting too much sugar, they’re getting too little of a number of essential vitamins and minerals.

I don’t think that we should be obtaining 25% of our daily calories from added sugar. While the “safe” amount of sugar is still up for debate, the previously suggested maximum of 10% of daily calories from the WHO seems reasonable and achievable. I don’t think that we should be rushing out and lobbying the food industry for sugar to be removed from everything. I certainly don’t think that this research lends any support to the case for sugar causing obesity. I think that we should take it as a caution and aim to be more conscious of the sugars we’re consuming on a daily basis.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

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