The 4 Most Confusing Things About Sugar

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Nowadays, when people meet me and hear that I’m a dietitian, the first thing they want to know is: What’s the deal with sugar? No doubt, sugar is the diet villain du jour. You’ve probably seen some scary headlines calling sugar toxic and pointing to it as the source of all our health woes. But the real story is far more complex.

Sugar in large quantities is, in fact, a big threat to your health. For years, experts have been saying that eating too much of any food can up your diabetes risk because overeating leads to obesity, which is the real culprit behind skyrocketing rates of the disease. But recent research suggests that the sweet stuff may have a more direct impact: For every additional 150 calories of added sugar downed per person per day, the prevalence of diabetes rose by 1 percent, even after controlling for obesity, physical activity and calories from other foods, according to a large study looking at international data. When it comes to heart health, excess sugar is also suspect. People who ate the most added sugar more than doubled their risk of death from heart disease, a JAMA Internal Medicine study found.

Adding to the problem, sugar is hiding in many surprising products, such as oatmeal and peanut butter, and confusing food labels make it hard to know how much of it you’re getting. So what’s a girl to do?

RELATED: 10 Easy Ways to Slash Sugar from Your Diet

Before you swear off everything from ice cream to strawberries, read my ground rules to satisfying your sweet tooth in the safest way possible.

Truth #1: Some kinds are better than others

It’s key to know the difference between the two main types of sugar.

Naturally occurring sugar is found in whole foods, such as fruit, vegetables and dairy products. These foods tend to be better for you because they deliver fiber (in the case of produce), as well as protein and calcium (in dairy) and other important vitamins and minerals.

Added sugars are anything sweet put into a food for flavor, from the sugar in store-bought ketchup to the honey you spoon into your tea. (Yes, “natural” sweeteners count.) These sugars are concentrated and mostly devoid of nutrients. Although honey, maple syrup and the like have some healthful antioxidants and minerals, they still pack hefty doses of sweetener per spoonful. This means you get a lot of pure sugar–and calories–in a small portion, making it easy to go overboard and cause big problems. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), increases in sugar intake over the past four decades parallel our expanding waistlines, and studies have connected added sugar, not the naturally occurring kind, to heart disease and diabetes.

RELATED: 10 Coffee Drinks Worse Than a Candy Bar

Truth #2: You have to read labels carefully

A lot of packaged foods contain both naturally occurring and added sugars. But the Nutrition Facts label lumps both kinds together, giving you one combined total. Last year, the FDA proposed separating the two to make it clearer how much of each type you’re getting, but until those changes take effect, the easiest way to tell if sugar has been added is to scan the actual ingredients list. If you see sugar grams but no sweeteners listed, then none were added. If you do see any type of sweetener–including brown sugar, cane juice, corn syrup, maltose or fructose–make sure it’s not the first thing listed. By law, ingredients must be in descending order of weight, so the higher up the added sugar, the more there is per bite. Also check for multiple types of sugar, which is a sneaky way food companies make something supersweet without telegraphing it on the ingredients list.

RELATED: 16 Most Misleading Food Labels

But you can automatically slash your sugar load by ditching sweetened drinks, eating mostly whole foods instead of sugary snacks and buying more unsweetened versions of packaged foods.

Truth #3: The limits are low but doable

According to the AHA, women should have no more than 100 calories of added sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons). Yet the average woman gets 18 teaspoons a day! Most of our added sugar comes from sweetened drinks and packaged foods, and the Nutrition Facts label lists sugar in grams, not calories or teaspoons, so it’s easy to lose track. Fortunately, there’s a simple formula for counting up sugar from any source: Just remember that 1 teaspoon equals about 4 grams of added sugar. So if you add a teaspoon to your morning joe and later have a chocolate protein bar with 12 grams (3 teaspoons) of sugar, you have 2 teaspoons (8 grams) left for the day.

Truth #4: Natural doesn’t mean free-for-all

Hardly any of us are inhaling too many servings of whole fruits and vegetables. But juices, smoothies and dried fruits are another story. Recently, a client was confused when I pointed out that her 15-ounce bottle of green juice contained more than 53 grams of sugar (and nearly 270 calories!). It’s all fruits and veggies, she reasoned, so why care? One problem when you gulp your produce is that you’re getting natural sugar without fiber (and it’s fiber in fruit that slows down digestion and gives your body time to metabolize the sugar). As a result, you store the excess calories as fat. Fiber also prevents blood sugar spikes that can raise your risk of type 2 diabetes.

Dried fruit can be tricky, too; without water, the natural sugars become more concentrated. You can still enjoy it, but right-size your portion: One cup of fresh fruit equals 1/2 cup of 100 percent juice equals 1/4 cup of unsweetened dried fruit. Now you’re in control of your sugar calories.

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Lower Cholesterol May Lessen Risk of Some Cancers

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THURSDAY, Nov. 5 (Health.com) — Most people know that healthy cholesterol levels can help protect your heart. But new research suggests another potential benefit: a lower risk of developing some types of cancer.

In fact, low total cholesterol is associated with about 60% less risk of the most aggressive form of prostate cancer, and higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL) may protect against lung, liver, and other cancers, according to two studies published this week in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers Prevention.

Thats quite a reversal of fortune for low cholesterol, which has, in the past, been associated with a higher cancer risk. The new studies suggest that low cholesterol may not deserve its bad reputation, earned from a series of studies in the 1980s that said people with low cholesterol might be at risk of cancer.

In fact, cholesterol may drop in people with undiagnosed cancer, meaning that low cholesterol may be a result–not a cause–of cancer.

In the first study, men with HDL cholesterol above roughly 55 mg/dL had an 11% decrease in overall cancer risk, including lung and liver cancer. (HDL levels between 40 and 50 are average for men.) The study, conducted by National Cancer Institute (NCI) researchers who looked at about 29,000 male smokers in Finland over an 18-year period, is the largest to show a relationship between HDL and cancer.

“Very few studies measured [HDL], and any relationship between HDL and overall cancer risk had therefore not been adequately evaluated,” the NCI’s Demetrius Albanes, MD, the lead author of the study, said at a press briefing.

While the findings are new and intriguing, more research needs to be conducted to confirm a link between HDL and cancer risk reduction.

“[Its] a very new, exciting question, but we need to do a great deal more research before we have any clear answers,” says Eric Jacobs, PhD, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying the studies. For his part, Dr. Albanes stressed that the results need to be confirmed, especially in women and nonsmokers.

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Menopause Causes Cholesterol Jump, Study Shows

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FRIDAY, Dec. 11, 2009 (Health.com) — Doctors have known for years that a woman’s risk of developing heart disease rises after menopause, but they weren’t exactly sure why. It wasn’t clear whether the increased risk is due to the hormonal changes associated with menopause, to aging itself, or to some combination of the two.

Now, we have at least part of the answer: A new study shows beyond a doubt that menopause, not the natural aging process, is responsible for a sharp increase in cholesterol levels.

This seems to be true of all women, regardless of ethnicity, according to the study, which will be published next week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

“As they approach menopause, many, many women show a very striking increase in cholesterol levels, which in turn increases risk for later heart disease,” says the lead author of the study, Karen A. Matthews, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Over a 10-year period, Matthews and her colleagues followed 1,054 U.S. women as they went through menopause. Each year the researchers tested study participants for cholesterol, blood pressure, and other heart disease risk factors such as blood glucose and insulin.

In nearly every woman, the study found, cholesterol levels jumped around the time of menopause. (Menopause usually occurs around age 50 but can happen naturally as early as 40 and as late as 60.)

In the two-year window surrounding their final menstrual period, the women’s average LDL, or bad cholesterol, rose by about 10.5 points, or about 9%. The average total cholesterol level also increased substantially, by about 6.5%.

Other risk factors, such as insulin and systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading), also rose during the study, but they did so at a steady rate, suggesting that the increases–unlike those for cholesterol–were related to aging, not menopause. Of all the risk factors measured in the study, the changes in cholesterol were the most dramatic.

The jumps in cholesterol reported in the study could definitely have an impact on a womans health, says Vera Bittner, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who wrote an editorial accompanying Matthewss study.

“The changes don’t look large, but given that the typical woman lives several decades after menopause, any adverse change becomes cumulative over time,” says Dr. Bittner. “If somebody had cholesterol levels at the lower ranges of normal, the small change may not make a difference. But if somebody’s risk factors were already borderline in several categories, this increase may tip them over the edge and put them in a risk category where treatment may be beneficial.”

In a first, the study did not find any measurable differences in the impact of menopause on cholesterol across ethnic groups.

Experts have been unsure how ethnicity may affect the link between menopause and cardiovascular risk, because most research to date has been conducted in Caucasian women. Matthews and her colleagues were able to explore the role of ethnicity because their research is part of the larger Study of Womens Health Across the Nation (SWAN), which includes substantial numbers of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American women.

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5 Yoga Poses You Can Do at Your Desk

So you’re stuck sitting at your computer all day! These moves ease neck and back strain–and let you slip in quick toning.

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From Health magazine

The mere thought of sneaking out for a lunchtime yoga class may be laughable, especially now that we’re all asked to do more and more on the job. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay stagnant for hours. There are effective moves you can do right at your desk, ones that will help you get a mental breather and make sure your neck, back, arms, hips and wrists remain in good working order.

Next: Scale Pose

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