Can Sugar Really Kill You?

Sugar has been vilified for a few years, but a new study suggests it may not be the devil—it could in fact be the Grim Reaper.

University of Utah researchers housed mice in a "seminatural enclosure" with the experimental and control groups "competing" with each other for the best territory. The mice in the experimental group were fed a diet that included about 12.5 percent dextrose and 12.5 percent fructose for about 26 weeks. Senior author Wayne Potts explained in a press release that they chose these percentages because it was "human-relevant," or the closest percentage researchers could get to a typical healthy American diet, which includes the sugar equivalent of three sodas a day.

Although the mice didn't become obese, the results were grim: After 32 weeks, 35 percent of the female mice on the added-sugar diet died, compared with 17 percent of the female mice in the control group. There was no difference in death rates of the male mice, but male mice on the added-sugar diet were less likely to reproduce and hold territory.

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While that sounds scary, the reality is that this doesn't paint a complete picture, partly because of flaws in the methodology of the study that make it hard to fully interpret the results, says Mark Kern, Ph.D., professor in the School of Exercise & Nutritional Studies at San Diego State University. "However, I wouldn't totally dismiss the results," he adds. "I think they are solid enough that we should do more investigation on the potentially harmful effects of sugar at the maximum recommended intake, as well as below."

Further complicating things is the fact that the results of other recent research about added sugars have been ambiguous. While some studies have shown a connection between sugar intake and metabolic syndrome, inflammatory diseases, and cancer, others have not. "This helps us realize that animal studies are preliminary and human clinical trials are really important," nutritionist Julie Upton says. "A vast majority of Americans eat a diet that has a significant amount of calories from added sugars, and we don't all fall ill. However, too much sugar can make it hard for you to manage your weight, and being overweight increases your risk for many chronic diseases."

When it comes to added sugars (which doesn't include sugars found in fruit), the American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 100 calories, or about 6 teaspoons, each day. But with processed sugar showing up in almost everything we eat, how can you be sure that you're doing your best to avoid sweeteners?

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You've heard all this advice before: Eat a diet rich in vegetables, protein, and healthy fats, and limit the sugary beverages you drink. Because added sugar often shows up in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, read labels when you're grocery shopping and try to avoid anything that comes in a box or a crinkly package. And if you do need a sugar fix, stick to the real things, Upton recommends.

"Reach for maple syrup, honey, or raw sugar," she says, "and avoid sugar sweeteners if you can, because they're not necessary and may even increase your desire for sweet stuff."

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