By some estimates as many as three out of every four American adults are overweight or obese. Sadly, the children of these overweight adults are following in their footsteps.
Experts tell us that it’s not just calories that are contributing to this epidemic—our couch-potato lifestyle means we burn fewer calories daily.
There’s actually a smorgasbord of reasons why we’re heavier than we’ve ever been.
We’re eating fewer whole-foods – and more processed and refined junk foods. We’re dining out more frequently and restaurant portions have grown along with our waistlines.
Some food sleuths finger the excess sugar in our diet as a contributing factor. Sugar is an easy target.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners – those made mainly from sucrose (table sugar made from cane and beets) and from high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – increased notably between 1950 and 2000.
The single biggest source of calories in the American diet? Soda and other sugary drinks! Americans, on average, consume between 18 and 23 teaspoons—about 300 to 400 calories worth—of added sugars per day.
Sp, is there one sweetener that’s better than another? If it’s “natural” does that make it better for you? The answer to both questions is NO!
We use sweeteners for taste, not nutrition. Whether your sweetener of choice is “natural” honey, maple syrup, white sugar or HFCS, it will pack about 4 calories per gram. That equates to about 25 calories for a heaping teaspoon of white sugar, or about 35 calories for a level teaspoon of honey.
Fructose occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables and honey. Fructose as a sweetener isn’t typically used alone; it’s usually found in combination with glucose and goes by the name sucrose, or table sugar, which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. HFCS is often 42% or 55% fructose, balanced primarily with glucose.
An exception is agave nectar, which contains up to 98% fructose.
You’ve probably seen the new headlines that blame dietary fructose for the extra weight we carry. I’m not so sweet on that diagnosis. Why? As I’ve indicated, most sweeteners – including HFCS and white sugar – are only part fructose.
Many foods contain natural sugar. There’s lactose in dairy and fructose in fruit and vegetables. But, there are other foods where sugar hides. These include soups, sauces and stews – even pickled and preserved products!
Reading the nutrition facts label doesn’t always help you understand the true nature of a product. The line that says “sugar” includes any naturally occurring sugars plus any added sugars. Best bet: read the ingredient list first. If you want to avoid foods with added sugar, be on the lookout for HFCS, and the myriad of ways to say sugar. Ingredients are listed in descending order of prominence.
The USDA website ChooseMyPlate.gov offers a personalized way to estimate the number of “empty calories” you eat.
Susan Burke March is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, who as chief nutritionist for eDiets promotes the dietary health and wellbeing of consumers worldwide.