Should We Regulate Sugar Like Alcohol?

My first grader is a sporty kid and so we move through the seasons with a variety of sports leagues. Coaches change, teams vary but one thing stays the same – the quality of the post-game snacks provided for the kids. They are consistently high in added sugars. Does a 45 minute fast paced basketball game really necessitate the provision of fruit juice, fruit roll ups, and dried fruit chips? All seemingly nutritious choices but all together mean a lot of added sugar.

Drs Robert H. Lustig, Laura A. Schmidt and Claire D. Brindis have plenty to say about added sugar in the American diet. They are actually calling for added sugars (sucrose and high fructose corn syrup) to be regulated by governments in similar ways to tobacco and alcohol so that public health is protected.

That’s a highly controversial statement so let’s take a look at the evidence they provide.

In 2003, four widely accepted criteria were adopted that justify the regulation of alcohol:

  • Unavoidability (or pervasive throughout society)
  • Toxicity
  • Potential for abuse
  • Negative impact on society

In America today, sugar is added to nearly all processed foods – it is pervasive in our food supply.

Is it toxic? There is good evidence to suggest that consuming too much sugar is linked to high blood pressure, high triglycerides, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. This is not only because sugar is adding excess, non-nutritious calories to the diet. Sucrose and high fructose corn syrup increase uric acid which raises blood pressure. They also need to be metabolized by the liver and if too much is eaten, can actually cause fatty liver – a disease that is also caused by excessive alcohol consumption. A recent study also showed that added sugar consumption may increase cardiovascular risk factors because it increases visceral fat, the kind that accumulates around internal organs.

Can sugar be abused? There are now several studies that show that humans can become dependent on sugar. Sugar can mess with the functioning of our hormones grehlin and leptin so we feel hungrier and are not satisfied as easily when we do eat. Sugar also plays havoc with dopamine signals in the brain. It reduces dopamine signaling in the brain’s reward center so it makes us want to eat more so we can experience more pleasure from the food.

Does excessive sugar intake have a negative impact on society? Well, if we look at the US costs to deal with metabolic syndrome (that cluster of high blood pressure, high triglycerides and high blood sugar), the numbers are staggering. $150 billion annually on health care resources alone!

So, if we agree that sugar intake meets the criteria for government regulation, then how do we reduce sugar consumption on a national level?

Drs Lustig, Schmidt and Brindis have good ideas modeled on successful tobacco and alcohol interventions. They would ideally like to ban television commercials for products with added sugar that are geared towards children. They propose tightening licensing requirements on vending machines and snack bars that sell sugary products in schools and workplaces. There is a strong sugar lobby that will make these kinds of changes difficult – but not impossible -as proven by tobacco and alcohol interventions.

Whether or not you agree with these ideas, it does make logical sense to look at your own level of added sugar consumption. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 100 calories per day for women and no more than 150 calories per day for men. Zing Bars are a great example of a delicious treat that is low in sugar and is a good source of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. Be aware of added sugars in foods you choose – you’ll be doing your health a favor!

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