THE BLOG
01/27/2016 05:31 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

Are We Oversimplifying the Sugar Debate?

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A recent study published in The Lancet, appropriately titled "Obesity: we need to move beyond sugar," argues solving the obesity crisis demands more than simply slapping a tax on the sweet stuff.

Let's backtrack a minute. Unless you've been living on another planet during the past few years, you know sugar has deservedly earned a bad rep.

"Over the past 30 years, adult consumption of added sugars in America has increased by more than 30 percent," writes Dr. David Samadi. "On average, Americans consume about 100 pounds of sugar per year, or almost 30 teaspoons a day."

Dr. Mark Hyman claims that number is even higher, with "152 pounds of sugar and 146 pounds of flour a year eaten on average by every American -- that is a toxic drug dose of diabetes-causing food."

That ever-increasing sugar consumption diminishes our health and expands our waistline. "Diets high in added sugar are linked with insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, changes in platelet function, fatty liver disease, diabetes and obesity, all linked to heart disease," writes Dr. Ayala Laufer-Cahana.

Understandably, experts seek solutions. "For the first time, there is a hard limit on added sugar, which should make up no more than 10 percent of your daily calories," writes Anna Almendrala about the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Back to that tax. Speciously, it sounds logical to curb sugar overconsumption. Among those who've joined the ever-growing chorus include the World Health Organization (WHO), which believes a sugar tax -- including taxing all junk foods in higher-obesity countries -- along with other measures like reducing portion sizes can help reduce the obesity epidemic.

But The Lancet researchers aren't so sure. "The goal of sugar reduction by introducing a sugar tax is a small step in the right direction," they write. "Nevertheless, it should not distract us from the need for far deeper and broader measures."

The questions become, are we dumbing down food by focusing exclusively on sugar? Should we be clearer about added sugars rather than naturally occurring sugar? Are we oversimplifying solutions by simply slapping a tax or otherwise expecting guidelines to moderate sugar consumption?

After all, we're not eating bowls of the sweet stuff. Most of that sugar overload comes from processed foods, which manufacturers make irresistible. "The combination of sugar and fat is what people prefer, and it's what they'll eat most," writes Dr. David Kessler in his book The End of Overeating. "The art of pleasing the palate is in large part a matter of combining them in optimal amounts. That can do more than make food palatable. It can make food 'hyperpalatable.'"

Studies and experts will continue to expose sugar's harm, and that we're having an open dialogue becomes an excellent start. A sugar tax, the latest dietary guidelines, or other regulations aren't going to solve the problem. Instead of looking for simple solutions to a complex issue, let's apply these five "far deeper and broader measures" to curb sugar consumption.

1. Become aware of sneaky sugars. You know a candy bar comes loaded with added sugars, but did you know so-called healthy foods can contain just as much sugar? Even the most health-conscious among us struggle to know everywhere sugar hides and how to avoid those things. Sneaky sugars hide in places you'd never suspect, including whole foods, diet foods, packaged fruit, drinks, and dressings. I identify 10 common sneaky sugars in this blog.

2. Move towards a whole foods, low-sugar impact diet. Laufer-Cahana mentions a study published in Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology that found 68 percent of packaged foods and beverages contain added sugars. The best way to avoid these added sugars is to stick with real food: Lean protein, healthy fats, loads of non-starchy veggies, slow low carbs like quinoa, and low-sugar impact fruit like berries.

3. Consider a food's cumulative sugar impact. Rather than just looking at the grams of sugar per serving, let's take a broader view and evaluate a food according to the effect it has on your body. That demands taking into account a food's fructose levels, nutrient density, fiber, and glycemic load.

4. Cultivate self-empowerment. Should we be surprised politically influenced dietary guidelines don't always have our best interests in mind? Rather than depend on authoritative figures to tell us what we eat, researchers in The Lancet suggest "empowering children and adolescents with the relevant knowledge about food and nutrition..." One study found Cooking with Kids (CWK), an experiential school-based food education program that got kids involved with cooking, increased fruit and vegetable consumption as well as fostered self-sufficiency and an optimistic attitude about cooking among fourth grade children.

5. Get everyone on board. Keep healthy staples nearby and make meals a priority in your family. Researchers in one study looked at meal frequency and healthy habits among adolescents. They found families who dined together five or more times a week installed healthy eating habits for those adolescents five years later.

Based on the latest studies and recommendations, what's your take about sugar guidelines? Are we oversimplifying things or do measures like a sugar tax work? Share your thoughts below.

Additional References
David Kessler, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (New York: Rodale, 2010).