Why High-Fructose Corn Syrup is So Bad for You

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Every year, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar. That’s six cups or three pounds of sugar every week. Put that into perspective: Around 200 years ago, most of us ate only two pounds of sugar every year!

What’s so bad about sugar? While the occasional treat probably won’t do much damage, too much sugar can harm your health in many ways. Among them:

The list goes on. Too much sugar can decrease your overall health and increase your waistline.

How Sugar Behaves in Your Body

Sugar comes in several forms. All carbohydrates, including bread and other starchy foods, break down to sugar. 

Natural sugars are those in fruit, vegetables, and other plant foods. They come nature-packaged with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. These nutrients help slow down the absorption of sugar.

Manufacturers often use added sugars, on the other hand, to processed foods. Adding sugar makes those foods taste better and even preserves their shelf life. But without the nutrients and fiber that whole foods provide, those added sugars can surge your blood sugar and insulin levels.

When you eat any kind of sugar — from natural or added sources — your body breaks it down into two simple sugars: Glucose and fructose. These two simple sugars behave differently in your body.

Glucose raises your blood sugar. Insulin responds, moving that sugar out of your bloodstream to your cells for energy, or to your liver to be stored as a back-up fuel called glycogen.

Fructose, on the other hand, doesn’t raise your blood sugar right away, so it doesn’t impact insulin levels. 

That’s not a good thing: The bigger-picture effects of fructose can be far more damaging than glucose. Excess amounts burden the liver, contributing to problems like fatty liver but also type 2 diabetes, obesity, and more.

Fructose can also create imbalances in leptin, a hormone that tells your brain to stop eating. With a condition called leptin resistance, your brain no longer “hears” leptin’s message to stop eating, so you overeat.

“Fructose can cause insulin resistance and weight gain,” says Mark Hyman, MD, in Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? “It also [increases fat] and dangerous types of cholesterol and triglycerides in your liver, which can lead to fatty liver disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dementia.”

High-Fructose Corn Syrup: The Biggest Loser?

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) became a popular alternative to sucrose or common table sugar in the 1970s. While it tastes like sugar, HFCS is more stable and easier to use in foods and drinks.

HFCS is slightly different than table sugar, which contains 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. A chemical bond joins the glucose and fructose in table sugar, which your stomach acid and gut enzymes break down.

As its name suggests, HFCS is higher in the sugar fructose, containing 55% or more fructose. Unlike with table sugar, no chemical bond joins the glucose and fructose with HFCS. That makes HFCS much easier for your body to break down, sending fast fructose hit straight to your liver.

How Much Does Sugar Play into the Obesity Problem?

Over the past few decades, obesity has increased dramatically. By 2030, half of all American adults will be obese.

Much of that blame lies on the standard American diet (SAD), which is high in fat and sugar. But researchers especially point the blame to sugary, empty-calorie foods and drinks.

These sugary, processed foods and drinks can make up a whopping 40 percent of total daily calories for children (ages two to 18). Sodas, desserts, fruit drinks, and pizza are among these empty calories.

These added sugars drive obesity, but they also contribute to a bigger problem called metabolic syndrome. This cluster of problems, which include obesity but also high blood pressure and insulin resistance, can lead to type 2 diabetes and other health problems.

Overall, researchers connect the rise of obesity with increased added sugars, especially HFCS. Some but not all studies show that consuming fructose or HFCS increases weight gain. 

Ultimately, obesity is complex. Chances are that more than one factor contributes to this problem. But added sugars are certainly one of those factors: Studies connect the rise in HFCS with increases in obesity and diabetes worldwide.

5 Ways to Minimize Added Sugars

While HFCS gets singled out, all added sugars are bad news. Overall, these added sugars:

  • Displace healthy foods that are rich in nutrients
  • Deplete nutrients 
  • Impair energy production
  • Mess with your hunger hormones, “scrambling” your hunger signals so you eat more and gain weight

Sugar substitutes aren’t any better. Some studies show that artificial sweeteners can increase your appetite and cravings for sugary foods. Others suggest that artificially sweetened drinks may fuel rather than fight obesity.

To lose weight and reduce your risk of disease, you’ll want to minimize or eliminate added sugars and artificial sweeteners.

But you needn’t deprive yourself either. These five strategies can help you minimize the impact of added sugars while satisfying your sweet tooth and overall health. 

  1. Pay attention to added sugars on a label. Processed foods like tomato sauce often contain added sugar even if they don’t taste sweet. Food labels now include both total and added sugars. While both numbers are important, added sugars are more damaging and can add up quickly.  
  2. Be aware of sneaky sources. You might be aware that a 12-ounce soda is pure sugar; 11 teaspoons, in fact. But did you know that a tiny cup of so-called healthy yogurt contains a whopping seven teaspoons of added sugar? To avoid these sneaky sugars, stick with whole, unprocessed foods. You know that an apple or broccoli doesn’t contain any added sugar. You’re also human, so you’ll eat some processed foods. That’s when you’ll want to read labels carefully and especially minimize added sugars.
  3. Nix the sugary drinks. On average, Americans consume about 46 percent of added sugar from drinks. You’re probably aware that colas and other soft drinks contain added sugars, but so do fruit juices, vitamin-enhanced waters, sports drinks, teas, and even so-called healthy beverages. Clean, filtered water will always be best. So are freshly brewed hot or iced tea. If you need sweetener, add a dash of 100 percent pure stevia. Read the label and assure it only contains stevia and no fillers like lactose. Keep a gallon of freshly brewed, stevia-sweetened iced tea in the fridge for your entire family. 
  4. Retrain your taste buds. Experts coined a word — hyper-palatable — to describe the sugary, empty-calorie processed foods and drinks that can become addictive. Manufacturers engineer these foods and drinks to mess with your taste buds, leaving you wanting more. Getting off sugar can be a challenge. But you’ll feel better, look better, and not have those miserable energy crashes. You learn to appreciate the natural sweetness of, say, almonds or even vegetables.
  5. Try our healthy desserts. You’ll occasionally want something to satisfy your sweet tooth. With our desserts, you can literally have your cake and eat it without the problems that added sugar creates. Whether you’re craving Chocolate Mint FudgePeanut Butter Pie, or something sophisticated like Raw Pecan Pie Mini Tart, you’ll find plenty of decadent, guilt-free recipes here

Our Core or Advanced Plans make a great way to manage your sugar intake. When you incorporate the principles in either of these plans, you naturally minimize your intake of added sugars. You’ll enjoy satisfying, whole foods while incorporating healthier options to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Sometimes you’re doing everything correctly — eating healthy, exercising, managing stress, and sleeping well — and yet the scales still don’t move the way you’d like.

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