A common misconception suggests that eating sugar is harmful or at least a weakness. Many well-educated people worry needlessly about sugar, candy, and desserts. For purposes of discussion, sweets can be defined as any food where sucrose, fructose, glucose, corn syrup, honey, or other sugars are listed as the first ingredient on the packaging. Sweets are not bad. The body needs sugar to function. The brain needs glucose to think. Sweets just need to be eaten in moderation.
The Normal Sweet Tooth
Many people are born with a "sweet tooth." Most adults also naturally seek and enjoy sweets. Giving candy as a gift for holidays and birthdays is a common symbol of affection. Even some members of the animal kingdom show a craving for sweets.
Sugar is naturally present in most foods except meat. The recommended daily allowance of calories from carbohydrates (sugar and starches) is 55 percent. Of this, no more than 10 percent should come from refined sugar (sucrose).
Lactose is the type of sugar found in milk, fructose is the sugar in fruits, and maltose is the sugar in grain products. Sucrose, the sugar refined from sugar cane and sugar beets, has no greater adverse effect on body function than any of the other sugars.
Side Effects of Sugar
The main risk associated with eating sweets is increased tooth decay. This risk can be greatly reduced if you drink fluoridated water and brush your teeth properly after eating foods that contain sugar. Foods that cause the most dental cavities (caries) are those that stick to the teeth (for example, raisins and caramels).
A temporary side effect of sugar may be seen 2 hours after excessive sugar consumption. A reaction is probably due to a rapid fall in blood sugar and consists of sweating, hunger, dizziness, tiredness, or sleepiness. This reaction is brief and harmless and can be relieved by the passage of time and by eating a food containing some sugar, such as fruit juice. These symptoms do not occur after eating a normal amount of sweets; nor do they occur in everyone.
Myths About Sugar
Eating sweets is basically not harmful. Candy does not cause cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. The following are some common issues many people are overly concerned about.
Obesity is caused by overeating in general and is not specifically related to eating sweets. In fact, fatty foods can contribute more to obesity than sugary foods because fatty foods have twice the calories of sugary foods per given amount. However, because of the availability of sweets in our society and the pleasure associated with eating them, sugary foods eaten in excess are a major factor in our obesity epidemic.
Extensive research has shown that sugar and chocolate do not cause or worsen hyperactivity. In fact, consuming a lot of sugar such as a 12-ounce soft drink (containing 10 teaspoons of refined sugar) may cause a temporary relaxed state or even drowsiness.
Acne is not made worse by candy or chocolate, according to research studies.
The term "junk food" has led to considerable confusion in our country. Some people consider any kind of sweet or dessert to be junk food. They claim that these foods lack nutritional value. While that is true for some sweets (candy), it is not true for others (such as peach pie). Eating sweets in moderation is not harmful.
Note: These guidelines do not apply to teenagers who have diabetes.
Eat sugar in moderation.
In general, eating any food in moderation is healthy. However, eating too much of any one kind of food is unhealthy. While one candy bar is fine, eating an entire bag of candy is unacceptable. Try not to binge on candy or sweets.
Limit the amount of sweets you buy.
The more sweets there are available at home, the more you will eat. Try to purchase breakfast cereals and cookies in which sugar is not the main ingredient.
Consider sweets for desserts.
Sweets can cause physical symptoms only if they are eaten in excess. As long as they are eaten after a well-balanced meal, they cause no symptoms. An acceptable dessert can be just about anything, including cookies, cake, or even a candy bar.
Avoid sweets for snacks.
Candy, soft drinks, and other sweets are not good choices for snacks. Because very little else is eaten with a snack, consuming mainly refined sugar alone may cause some rebound symptoms several hours later. If you have a soft drink or Kool-Aid as a snack, you should eat something from the grain or fruit food groups along with it. An occasional sweet drink containing a sugar substitute is fine. Keep plenty of nutritious snacks and drinks (such as fruits, juices, yogurt, graham crackers, oatmeal cookies, and popcorn) on hand. Most cookies are OK for snacks because the main ingredient is flour.
Brush your teeth after eating sweets.
Unless you develop this good habit, a "sweet tooth" can become a decayed tooth.
Call your healthcare provider during office hours if:
- You frequently binge on sweets.
- You think you have a problem with sugar.
- You have other questions or concerns.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Published by RelayHealth.
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