Serious sweet tooth

Originally Published: August 12, 2011
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Hey Alice,

I am a 19-year-old male and I am on the worst end of sugar intake. On normal days I have found myself to consume upwards of 500 grams of sugar, and I have no idea how much I eat on special occasions where candy and other sweets are bountiful.

I am a lanky kid with a family history of excessively high metabolisms. When I reach for a snack I grab an entire box of cookies, mostly vanilla wafers and graham crackers, and a large cup of milk because I don't want to have to get up again. I always reach for easy to eat and high calorie food choices because they take less effort to consume and last me longer.

To go along with this large quantity food consumed, I exercise a lot and am fairly hyper at all times. I enjoy the way I live and love playing sports all the time and I don't want to change it. I am merely wondering what other high calorie, easy access foods are out there that would be even a little bit healthier for me to eat. My father is also a borderline diabetic.

Thanks Alice,

Sugar Destroyer

Dear Sugar Destroyer,

Cookies and sodas and ice cream, oh my! While sugar isn't your enemy, a person can have too much of a good thing. This is especially true when that good thing has only the sweetness, but no other "good things" that your body needs to function properly (e.g. nutrients like vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc.). The empty calorie issue, however, is only one part of the problem with consuming excessive amounts of sugar — more on that later. Let's tackle your first question: What high-calorie, easy access foods would be a healthier choice for you compared to your typical grab for boxes of graham crackers and vanilla wafers?

Not surprisingly, you might try reaching for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Incidentally, the fiber in these foods will make you feel fuller, which may mean you won't have to reach for another snack as quickly. Healthy fats are a good pick, too, because they are of high energy density. That is, a little bit goes a long way. Try foods such as avocados, nuts and nut butters, seeds, flax, or olive oil. Eat a variety of fruits, whether they are fresh, frozen, dried, or canned. Other recommended foods include darker veggies such as spinach, kale, collards, or broccoli. Beans are a great source of sugar, fiber, and protein, and they fill you up. For whole grains, look for brown rice, 100% whole wheat breads, whole grain cereals, and whole wheat pastas.

There's another concern in terms of your sugar consumption. Too much of one particular type of sugar, fructose, can have more dramatic health consequences. Fructose is found in regular sugar (which is half glucose, half fructose), and it is found in its most concentrated form in corn syrup (the snack foods you mentioned contain this type of sugar). Fructose is not metabolized the same way as other sugars, such as glucose. Glucose is metabolized by all the cells in your body, but fructose is processed only in the liver. When large amounts of fructose hit the liver quickly, the liver starts converting the fructose to fat and stores it in the liver as fatty deposits. This could lead to insulin resistance, which in turn puts stress on your pancreas to produce more and more insulin in order to overcome the cellular resistance. This can lead to pancreatic exhaustion, and is the main cause of type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance also contributes to obesity and increases levels of LDL, or "bad" cholesterol. It is also notable that, while being overweight is linked to the fatty liver deposits and insulin resistance, there are many lean people who have this same syndrome. You mentioned your father is a borderline diabetic, which may mean that you could be at increased risk for diabetes, as well.

Thus, it is important to choose your sugary foods wisely. The healthiest sugar choices are those foods which are naturally sweetened and contain no added sugar. Read your labels. On an ingredient list, ingredients are listed in order of amount by weight from most to least, so when an ingredient occurs early on in the list, you can expect there is a lot of it in the food. Added sugars may appear in a list as: anything that ends in "ose" (e.g. fructose, glucose, lactose), corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, invert corn syrup, corn sweetener, malt syrup, maple syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, brown sugar, or molasses. In the western diet, the most commonly consumed added sugar foods are: sodas, candy, cookies, cake, pies, fruit drinks (like punch and fruit cocktail), ice cream, and sweetened grains (e.g. waffles and pancakes). The good news is that once you start cutting back on the amount of sugar you consume, you may find that you crave it less. Decreasing your sugar intake will decrease your risks for developing diabetes and cavities, for sure, and possibly other chronic diseases that are less of an issue now as a young person, but may become a concern as you get older.

Lastly, your insatiable sugar appetite may be worth a trip to your health care provider. Sometimes, such an appetite and high metabolism may be indicators of another health issue, such as hyperthyroid, an autoimmune condition in which too much thyroid hormone is produced. If you are a Columbia student, you make an appointment using Open Communicator.

 Best of luck in fulfilling the needs of both your sweet tooth and your body.