I’m not one for extolling the virtues of making a list of New Year’s resolutions as they have the habit of becoming this year’s disillusions. But now that the holidays are behind us and the reality of over-consumption is staring us in the mirror, many of us will at least make an effort to eat a healthier diet in 2017. In my opinion (and I’m not alone on this), the single most important change we can make to our diets that will enhance the “happy and healthy” sweet spot in our lives is to significantly reduce the amount of sugar we ingest. Back in the early 1800’s the annual intake of sugar was about 6 lbs. per person. By 1900 that amount had almost doubled to 11 lbs. Fast forward to the present and America’s sugar cravings now tip the scales at a whopping 150 lbs. per year, the highest in the world. The current recommendation established by the World Health Organization for free sugar intake is 5% of one’s caloric intake. For most people this would equate to about 25-35 grams (28.4 grams = 1 ounce) of sugar per day or about 20-30 lbs. per year. Free sugar is defined as any sugar that is added to prepared or processed foods. Syrups, honey and fruit juices are also classified as free sugars. Fruit is not considered a free sugar so an orange would not count but a glass of orange juice would. Children and adolescents in the U.S. now derive about 16% of their calories from added sugar in their diets.
The deleterious effects of excessive sugar intake are well documented and include higher rates of obesity, diabetes, dental cavities, heart disease, cancer, liver disease, mood swings and depression. Since 1980 the obesity rate for children in the U.S. has doubled to 17.5% and the rate for teens has increased an astonishing four fold to 20.5%. The rate for adults is even higher at 38% nationally. The health care costs for obesity in the U.S. have been estimated at between 150-200 billion dollars a year. Diabetes is another scourge that affects about 10% of the U.S. population, costing close to 250 billion dollars annually. Too much sugar can also weaken our immune system significantly. A sugary meal can reduce the immune response by 40-50% within a half hour of ingestion and the effects can last up to six hours. This is especially significant during the winter months when colds, flu’s and respiratory ailments are more prevalent and the need for a strong immune system is paramount to staying healthy.
Sugar not only affects human health but also the health of the environment where it is grown and processed. Florida is the leading cane sugar producer in the U.S., amounting to 15 million metric tons annually. The sugar cane is cultivated on 450,000 acres of land, most of which is located around the southern half of Lake Okeechobee., the primary source of water for the Everglades. Vast quantities of water are being diverted to the sugar plantations, disrupting the natural hydrologic cycle of the region and starving the glades of their life-blood. The addition of fertilizers (especially phosphorous), herbicides and pesticides have ravaged the unique Everglades ecosystem, resulting in a 75% decrease in wildlife. This witch’s brew of chemical runoff also reaches the salt water estuaries on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, creating fetid algal blooms that choke the waters, deplete the water’s oxygen and kill off a myriad of invertebrates, fishes and oyster beds. A 2016 article in Mother Jones magazine was entitled: “Florida Just Flushed its ‘Toilet’ Lake onto its Beaches”, referring to Lake Okeechobee’s polluted runoff. Sugar beets are no better for you or the environment. Virtually all sugar beets are genetically engineered, doused with Monsanto’s Round Up (aka glyphosate- a carcinogen) and are just as thirsty as their sugar cane accomplices. I hope that I have been able to sweet talk you into joining me in cutting way back on the dirty white stuff. Come to think of it, I wish Old Man Winter would do the same!