Join Dr. Johnson for Community Medical School – free and open to the public. She will present a lecture titled “No Sugar Added: How to Reduce Health Risks and Keep Life Sweet,” followed by a Q&A, on October 7, 2014, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Davis Auditorium at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. 

Rachel Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, is the Bickford Green and Gold Professor of Food & Nutrition Sciences and Professor of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

Rachel Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, is the Bickford Green and Gold Professor of Food & Nutrition Sciences and Professor of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

Recent research shows that sugar consumption and cardiovascular disease are linked. Rachel Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, took time to speak with us about the sources of added sugars in the American diet, the health consequences of high sugar consumption, the role of non-nutritive sweeteners, and policy initiatives to decrease sugar intake.

How are sugar consumption and cardiovascular disease linked?

For many years, we focused on the role of fat and heart disease. In recent years, we have learned more about the link between high intakes of added sugars and increased risk of heart disease – particularly when that added sugar is in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages. As the research has evolved, we now know that a high intake of added sugars has increased incidence for many of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. That includes hypertension (when your blood pressure is 140/90 mmHg or above most of the time), chronic inflammation, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. In fact, a recent study found that people who got 17 to 21 percent of calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who got 8 percent of their calories from added sugar

What are the sources of added sugars in the American diet?

The main sources are sugar-sweetened beverages (for example, soft drinks, vitamin waters, fruit drinks, and sports drinks). A regular can of soda has about 35 grams of added sugars. These are followed by grain-based desserts (that is, desserts made from flour like cakes and cookies), dairy desserts (like ice cream), sweetened cereals, and other things, like spaghetti sauce, ketchup, and crackers. We saw a big increase in the intake of added sugars with the advent of high fructose corn syrup, which made sweeteners very cheap. Cane sugar was more expensive. When we figured out how to make a less expensive sweetener, that’s when we saw the increase in all kinds of foods and big shift in intake vis-à-vis cane sugar and beet sugar.

What are the health consequences of high sugar consumption?

There is a clear link between a high intake of added sugars and being obese/overweight and/or developing type II diabetes..Then, there is nutrient adequacy – most of us do not have room in our diets for a lot of added sugars because our energy needs are quite low once we meet all of our nutrient needs. Unless we are really active, we do not have the room in our diet to use up these empty calories.

What are some of the latest policy initiatives to reduce added sugar intake?

We are seeing interesting policy initiatives in many domains. Just recently, we saw a new agreement between three major beverage companies (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group) and the Clinton Global Initiative to reduce Americans’ calorie consumption in sugary drinks by 20 percent by 2025. In schools, we see a completely different environment than in years past – banks of vending machines with sugar-laden drinks are disappearing. There have also been a number of public health initiatives, such as New York City’s “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign and Boston’s recent commitment to ban sugar-sweetened beverages in city government. We are also seeing a lot on the local and municipal government level.

What is a good rule-of-thumb for people trying to watch their added sugar intake?

The American Heart Association recommends:

  • No more than 6 teaspoons of 100 calories a day of sugar for women.
  • No more than 9 teaspoons or 150 calories a day for men.

Rachel Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, is the Bickford Green and Gold Professor of Food & Nutrition Sciences and Professor of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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