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Federal Dietary Guidelines Put Spotlight on Sugar, but More is Needed

A newly released set of federal dietary guidelines has brought a focus on reducing sugar intake. This is a good start, but unfortunately industry groups are already working to muddy this simple message.

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A newly released set of federal dietary guidelines has brought renewed and timely focus on reducing sugar intake.

For the first time, the guidelines provide a clear recommended limit on added sugar in the diet: No more than 10 percent of our daily energy intake should come from added sugar, which is less than about 10-12 teaspoons per day.

This is a good start, but unfortunately, industry groups are already working to muddy this simple message.

Makers of highly processed foods and beverages have suggested that, because the government has scrapped earlier recommended limits on things such as eggs, the latest limits on sugar may also be unnecessary.

The science on sugar is clear. The rates of childhood obesity and obesity-related diseases have reached epidemic proportions, with a third of children and two-thirds of adults being overweight or obese. Texas now has the 11th highest adult obesity rate in the nation. Added sugar intake has been consistently linked to this epidemic. 

Added sugar has direct links to not just weight gain for children and adults but to diseases such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. During the past three decades, the amount of fat and protein in our diet has not changed dramatically, but the quality of our carbohydrates has.

Carbohydrate intake has shifted from whole grains, fruits and vegetables to sweetened cereals and yogurts, processed chips and crackers, sugar sweetened beverages, and prepared sauces, dressings and desserts. American adults and children are eating and drinking much more added sugar than was the case 30 years ago.

In fact, the food and drink industries add so much sugar to what they sell us that national studies now show the average American, adult or child, consumes about 20 teaspoons of refined sugars daily, excluding naturally occurring sugars found in fruit, milk and other healthy foods.

We Americans eat and drink about twice as much sugar as the new guidelines recommend.

The largest culprit can be found in what we drink, so the new dietary guidelines wisely single out the need to cut back on sodas, fruit drinks, flavored coffees and teas, and sports drinks. Research shows that when you drink your calories instead of eat them, you do not get as full, which leads to consuming more calories over the course. Unlike solid foods, which usually have protein, fat or dietary fiber that help slow down digestion and contribute to how full we feel later, most sweet drinks offer only empty calories.

And because children and teens get even more added sugar from beverages than adults do, the guidelines are key in preventing and treating childhood obesity. This may be especially true in the low-income areas and minority communities where the beverage industry often targets its marketing, leading to higher consumption in some of the areas that can least afford the ill effects of sugary drinks.

Even for children who aren’t obese, sugar intake has been shown to cause behavioral challenges, problems concentrating and lower levels of academic performance. It’s clear that schools, neighborhoods and clinics all have something to gain from adhering to the new dietary recommendations.

During the past decade, people have started to learn more about sugar, and as a result, they’re drinking less of it. But sugar consumption is still too high, and our country has the adverse health effects to show for it. With the new dietary guidelines, I’m hopeful that consumption will continue to come down and bring about better health outcomes as a result.

Simply paying attention — not to industry’s misinformation, but to how much added sugar is in our processed foods — is good motivation to avoid overdoing sugar in our diet. When we do, we’ll begin to look for natural substitutes, the whole grains, fruits and vegetables our bodies really need.

Jaimie Davis is an associate professor of nutritional sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston ChronicleFort Worth Star Telegram and Austin American Statesman.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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