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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : I’m at a steady healthy weight, but do use a lot of sugar in my hot tea. I usually drink from 2-4 cups a day, with 2 teaspoons of sugar per cup. Other than possible weight gain, are there any other drawbacks?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Mary Pickett, M.D. is an Associate professor at Oregon Health & Science University where she is a primary care doctor for adults. She supervises and educates residents in the field of Internal Medicine, for outpatient and hospital care. She is a Lecturer for Harvard Medical School and a Senior Medical Editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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November 08, 2011
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A:

Those daily spoonfuls of sugar probably do add to obesity and poor heart health. This is the opinion of many nutrition experts, and also the American Heart Association (AHA).

Between 1970 and 2005, Americans upped their daily average intake of added sweeteners by 19%. Half of the increase came from sweetened beverages, including sodas. This trend has serious health risks: Research in the past several years has linked added sugars in the American diet to epidemics of obesity, diabetes, cholesterol problems and high blood pressure.

Why is sugar an issue? More sugar in our diets means we’re taking in more total calories. But the problem may not be so simple.

Recent research also suggests that dietary sugars may change our actual metabolism. That’s the rate at which our bodies use energy or burn calories. In human and animal studies, fructose, a type of sugar, has been linked to higher triglyceride levels and low HDL (good cholesterol) levels. It’s also related to high blood pressure, insulin resistance (the cause of type 2 diabetes), fatty liver and abdominal obesity. This collection of conditions, which has been linked with heart disease, is called the "metabolic syndrome."

Some experts have found evidence for this change at a molecular level, especially from sugars containing fructose. They see that fructose digestion depletes our supply of a cell fuel known as “ATP.”, They think that this could be what shifts metabolism.

Other scientists are looking at trends in nature and evolution. They say having a different metabolism when our diet is at its sweetest may be key to survival of the fittest. These scientists point out that in harvest seasons, sweet taste is a message for animals. It tells the brain “it’s time to store fat.” For example, when bears eat berries at the end of the summer, this sweet diet shifts their metabolism so that they more readily store up fat for the winter.

The problem for Americans is that our sweet diet is no longer a short, seasonal event. It is year-round. We need less of the “store fat” message in our bodies.

In 2009, the AHA issued a recommendation about “added sugars.” These are the sweeteners that are added to processed foods and beverages (your hot tea!). As well as the sprinkle of sugar you might use at home in baking and at the table. These include corn syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar and honey.

The AHA recommends Americans cut their daily “added sugar” intake to the following:

  • Women – no more than 5 teaspoons
  • Men – no more than 9 teaspoons
  • Children 4 to 8 years old – no more than 3 teaspoons

Adults who aren’t active or drink alcohol regularly should have less than these amounts.

The most effective way to have less sugar in your diet is to stop drinking sweetened beverages on a regular basis. Americans get 33% of their added sugar from soft drinks. Case in point: a single 12-ounce soda has about 8 teaspoons of sugar.

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