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Sony John, MD
Family Medicine
Chester County Hospital; West Chester, PA

Recently, my wife and I hosted a barbecue for family and friends. As the guests arrived, so did an impressive spread of appetizers and desserts. Our table was filled with cupcakes, pies, chips, sodas and many more tasty treats than we could ever consume in one sitting. As I assessed the spread of goodies, I decided to divide and conquer. I started off with chips, dips and a beverage, worked my way through the burgers and hot dogs, and finished off with a selection of wonderful desserts, including watermelon. Halfway through the party, I was pleasantly stuffed.

The next day, however, I awoke feeling lethargic, lazy and lacking overall motivation. Why was this? It was a great party, I had a fun time with friends and I didn't even get to bed that late. I should have been full of energy and on my way to the gym!

After surveying the tower of Tupperware housing leftovers from the night before, I realized that most of the items had one thing in common - SUGAR. Sugar was in practically every dish. Unfortunately, it wasn't just in the sweets I ate, but the other food too, such as rolls and chips - refined carbohydrates that turn into sugar as the body breaks them down.

Patients routinely come into the office having gained weight explaining, "You know how it goes, there are so many temptations. I just wanted to enjoy myself, but I may have overindulged." Unfortunately, I DO know how it goes and I use the same excuse from time to time - I'm human too!

So, how much sugar can you eat in a day without the toxic effects of the sugar hangover?

The average American consumes about 20 teaspoons of sugar a day according to a report from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The World Health Organization encourages people to choose a diet that includes less than 5% of daily calories from sugar. This is about the same as 6 teaspoons (or 25 grams) of sugar.

Let's put this in terms that we can relate to. Drinking one regular can of soda a day puts you over the recommended sugar allotment! One soda can pack a punch of up to 40 grams of sugar. Also, watch out for added sugars in things like cereals, breads and condiments - these should be included in your daily allotment as well.

What harm does sugar do to me besides maybe a few cavities?

According to the study published in JAMA: Internal Medicine, those who got 17 to 21 percent of calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those who consumed 8 percent of their calories from added sugar. The risk was more than double for those who consumed 21 percent or more of their calories from added sugar. Additionally, there is evidence that suggests that sugar has the same effect on the liver as alcohol. And, there have also been studies linking sugar to faster aging and memory loss. Reducing the amount of added sugars we eat cuts calories and can help you improve your overall health and control your weight.

What's the next step?

The next step is to look closely at the amount of sugars and carbohydrates you consume. Once you have a grasp on the amount of sugars you eat and drink each day, you may find that you are feeling more energetic and healthier in general. Sound silly? Derrick Rose, point guard for the Chicago Bulls, found that when he entered the NBA he sustained a number of injuries that were difficult to heal. He came forward and admitted that he was addicted to sugar and believed that the consumption of sugar and his unhealthy diet throughout his life affected the way his body performed and healed after injury.

Derrick Rose now has a personal chef that steers him away from the sweets and junk food that impacted his career and his health. Since we can't all have personal chefs that monitor and prepare our foods for us, here are some simple tips for managing the sugar content in your diet:

  • Drink more water - Cut back or eliminate sugary drinks completely.
  • Eat fresh, frozen or dried fruits - Avoid packaged fruits preserved in syrup or juice.
  • Toss the condiments - Lessen the amounts of sugar you add to coffee, tea or even your cereal. Ditch the syrup on the pancakes and top with fresh fruit instead.
  • Compare food labels - Choose products with lower amounts of added sugars.
  • Cut back - When baking, cut the sugar amount by a third to a half. You may not even notice the difference.
  • Replace it altogether - Enhance foods with spices, extracts or even fruits like apples or bananas or berries.
  • Focus on ways to improve your diet and increase your exercise.

Also, remember, your primary care physician can serve as a great team player or even coach in your quest for good health. Schedule an appointment with your family doctor to come up with a personalized plan on how to improve your lifestyle.

This article was published June 15, 2015 as part of the Daily Local News Medical Column series. It has been reprinted by permission of the Daily Local News.

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