Headlines are buzzing about studies that tie diets high in added sugars to weight gain and poor health (including cancer risk). But suggestions that you add up every gram of sugar and weed it all out can be more overwhelming than helpful.
What is true is that Americans—and many people around the world—are consuming a lot of sugar.
>> The average U.S. adult gets the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of added sugar every day.
>> Even more worrisome, nearly one third of U.S. adults are categorized as high consumers of added sugars and get about 31 teaspoons a day.
Let’s look at how recent studies featured in media and Internet headlines fit with overall research and recommendations on eating choices to reduce cancer risk and promote health.
Sugar and Health: A Closer Look
One study aimed to summarize the best available evidence from studies examining whether sugar consumption is related to any of a huge range of different health outcomes. Of the outcomes examined, 45 harmful health conditions were related to sugar consumption.
Mounting evidence: Added sugar may be tipping the scales
- Evidence is strongest showing links between sugar consumption and fat accumulation in body tissues where it doesn’t belong (such as in the liver and muscles).
- High consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (like soda) is related to higher body weight, greater risk of obesity and greater yearly weight gain.
- Each daily sugar-sweetened beverage adds to greater risk of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
What about cancer risk? Studies investigating a link between added sugars and cancer have focused largely on sugar-sweetened beverages, in part because they’re one of the top sources of added sugars for most people.
- People who drank the most sugar-sweetened beverages had higher overall cancer risk compared to those who drank the least, with some increase in risk seen for each daily drink.
- Risk of liver cancer increased with higher consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks.
- Overall cancer mortality was higher among people who drank the highest amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages than in those consuming the lowest amounts.
Making Sense of Concerns about Sugar and Cancer
At least 12 different types of cancer are related to overweight, obesity and weight gain. A recent study followed almost one million U.S. adults for decades. People who consumed two or more servings per day of sugar-sweetened drinks were more likely to develop an obesity-related cancer than people who reported never drinking them.
However, that association of sugar-sweetened beverages with risk of these cancers disappeared when researchers statistically adjusted for body mass index (BMI, a way of categorizing weight for height). This suggests that the increased risk of these cancers was mostly not a direct link of sugar-sweetened drinks to cancer risk but was because these drinks promote weight gain and excess body fat.
Could a high-sugar diet increase cancer risk more directly? Limited evidence from controlled trials shows that sugar-sweetened beverages or high-sugar diets can lead to inflammation and elevated levels of circulating insulin. Especially for people who are most sensitive to these influences, a diet high in sugar-sweetened drinks and foods with added sugars could lay the groundwork for cancer to develop. But for now, a direct link to cancer risk is not based on strong evidence.
High consumption of added sugars can also be a marker for a diet that’s low in foods that promote health and reduce cancer risk. If you include high-sugar foods like cookies, candy and ice cream often, you’re probably eating them at times you could otherwise have included fruit, a whole grain or some vegetables.
What You Can Do to Cut Back on Sugar
Changing habits is never easy, and it always takes a little time before new habits get established. Aim for habits that will give you the biggest health benefits with the least trouble and frustration.
1) The Quick Win: Save Sugar-Sweetened Drinks for Occasional Use Only.
Sugar-sweetened drinks account for more than one third of added sugars for a typical U.S. adult. And for those who consume the most added sugar, sweet drinks account for over half of it.
Sugar-sweetened drinks may promote weight gain even more than other high-sugar foods do. Some studies suggest that they don’t satisfy hunger in the same way that solid foods do. So even though they’re a concentrated source of calories, you may not compensate and reduce calories from other sources.
Ideas you can try:
- Make water your “default” beverage—what you turn to on autopilot without thinking about it.
- If the difference in taste poses a challenge, start with unsweetened sparkling water flavored with natural flavors.
- At home, make your own flavored water by adding some herbs or a bit of fruit to a pitcher of water you keep handy in the fridge.
- Regular or decaf tea or coffee are also great choices, as long as you keep caffeine within appropriate limits.
Check your drinks. Sugar-sweetened drinks include more than soda.
Soft drinks (called soda or pop in various regions) are the most common sweetened drinks, but they’re not the only ones. Fruit “drinks” often contain only a small amount of fruit juice and are mostly sugar-sweetened water. Energy drinks and sports drinks count, too. And so does “sweet tea,” whether it’s bottled tea with added sugar or the form of ice tea especially popular in the southeastern U.S. And a coffee flavored with pumps of syrup can be as sugar-laden as a regular soda.
Add up how often you drink all these choices and consider if cutting back is called for.
2) What If You Rarely Drink Sugar-Sweetened Beverages?
If you drink a sugar-sweetened drink less than once a week, then changing beverages is probably not your most important strategy for limiting added sugars.
Be aware of concentrated sources of added sugars in sweet treats. Bakery items (cakes, pies, cookies, brownies, doughnuts and pastries) plus candy and frozen desserts like ice cream can add a lot of sugar, too. Women, especially, typically get as much sugar from these foods all together as from sweetened drinks, large scale dietary surveys show.
Ideas you can try:
- Selectively choose sweets that give you the most joy and ditch the rest. A candy dish on a desk, a cookie jar on the kitchen counter and automatically ordering dessert when you eat out can all prompt you to eat sweets you don’t truly appreciate.
- Check your portions. From cookies to ice cream, sweets are now often served in portions far beyond the standard of years past. Choose small and savor every bite.
It’s Not All or Nothing
Studies that link high amounts of these foods and drinks with weight gain and other health outcomes usually show risk with consuming them daily or perhaps several times a week.
What kind of limit could you reasonably maintain?
Try not to use sweetened foods and drinks as a reward—for exercise, for weight loss or for some other success. The more you connect these foods with emotions, the harder it usually is to limit them.
Consider them not as “bad” foods or “comfort” foods . . . simply as tasty foods to eat in limited amounts.
What about other foods? You’re probably also getting small amounts of added sugars from condiments like ketchup and salad dressing, peanut butter, jelly and breakfast cereal. You could track down these sources and find alternatives. But most people get a relatively small proportion of their total added sugars from these foods.
For a quick win, make your first step one that will make a real difference in the overall quality of your diet. Check your habits and find a limit you can live with: first, for sugar-sweetened drinks, and then for sweet treats.
Want help creating new eating habits that you can sustain? Try taking it step-by-step with AICR’s free online program, the Healthy10 Challenge.