A spoonful of sugar makes your life span go down. That’s the conclusion of one study conducted by researchers at Harvard, which found that having too many sugary drinks could increase a person’s risk of dying young. Americans are growing increasingly aware about how hazardous sugar can be to their health. I’m one of them. I didn’t want Coke to kill me. So four years ago, I broke up with sugar for good.
It’s a worthwhile goal for the tens of millions of Americans aiming to eat healthier. We tend to eat a lot more sugar than we realize. The candy aisles filled with Halloween goodies tempt us when we go into stores. Then there are sugars we don’t think about, like the added sugars that get mixed into everything from canned soup to marinara sauce. Even seemingly healthy foods contain loads of added sugar. A bowl of one popular brand of “healthy” cereal has as much sugar as a Snickers bar. One well-known energy bar contains the sugar equivalent of two jelly doughnuts from Dunkin’.
When we take a big hit of sugar, our bodies convert some of it into energy and turn the rest into fat in a process called lipogenesis. In other words, whatever sugar we don’t use for energy goes straight to our waistlines. That’s why high-sugar diets lead to serious health problems. A review of 30 studies of over 240,000 adults and children conducted by European researchers found a definitive link between sugary drinks and obesity. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who draw one-fifth of their calories from added sugar are almost 40% more likely to die of heart disease, compared to their peers who consume less sugar.
Sugar is also highly addictive. Research on rats has shown sugar to induce symptoms of addiction including cravings and withdrawal. One study found that Oreos lit up more pleasure receptors in a rat’s brain than cocaine. I’ve experienced these forces firsthand. Before I finally kicked added sugar from my diet, I had to admit to myself that my love of Girl Scout cookies wasn’t the product of a sweet tooth — it was an addiction.
Even Americans who know sugar is unhealthy don’t realize how much harm it can do. One survey conducted by Healthline found that 86% of people know that sugar is unhealthy — but 40% still eat too much of it. Nearly half of those surveyed were surprised to learn sugar has the same “addictive characteristics” as heroin. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that many Americans are in the dark about the dangers of sugar. Over the past few decades, the sugar lobby has spent millions of dollars to mislead the public.
In 1967, the sugar industry paid a group of Harvard scientists to release a study claiming that fat, not sugar, led to obesity and heart disease. From 1975 to 1980, the industry spent $655,000 — the equivalent of $2 million today — on 17 studies designed to cast doubt on sugar’s role in causing chronic disease. Those investments achieved their objective for the sugar industry. The first set of federal dietary guidelines, released in 1980, called for a low-fat diet. Food companies responded to this guidance by pumping out fat-free products loaded with carbs and sugar.
We finally have the tools to just say no to added sugars. In 2016, the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to include added sugars on nutrition labels. So we can now easily identify secretly sugary foods to avoid. That means choosing, say, marinara sauce made with real tomatoes instead of high-fructose corn syrup, or choosing unsweetened yogurt. Or making fruit smoothies from scratch, rather than buying them pre-bottled. There’s never going to be a perfect time to make a healthy new start. But a small change, avoiding excess sugar, is a simple way to lose a few pounds — and potentially stave off an early demise. Maybe start with the Halloween candy.
David Kopp is former CEO of Healthline Media. He wrote this column for the Baltimore Sun.