Avoid the sour side of a sweet tooth

‘Sugar crash’ and other ills afflict those who consume too much refined sugar

Special to Washington PostApril 23, 2013 

India Sugar

The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 100 calories daily from refined sugar, 150 calories for men.


  • Watching your sugar

    If you like to add sugar yourself, such as with coffee or tea, use sugar cubes, which have 15 calories each.

    “If you use sugar in your coffee or tea, this is a way to keep an eye on exactly how much you are using,” said Angela Ginn of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Have you ever had a sugar crash? You know – that sudden fatigue, headache or irritability you might feel after eating, oh, a hundred jelly beans.

If so, you are probably not alone.

The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 100 calories daily from refined sugar, 150 calories for men.

That translates, using our jelly bean currency, into 10 jelly beans for women and 15 for men.

And that is your entire allotment for the day of refined sugar.

“Many Americans eat about five times the amount of sugar they should consume,” said Natasa Janicic-Kahric, an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University Hospital.

That means that instead of the AHA-recommended 6 teaspoons of sugar, many women are consuming up to 30, and men are consuming 45 teaspoons instead of 9.

High levels of sugar flood the blood and create sudden spikes and drops in blood sugar levels. This can – but doesn’t necessarily – cause a “sugar crash” (sudden headache, fatigue, irritability, increased heart rate, anxiety), Janicic-Kahric said.

It’s not known how many people experience this problem, and some in the medical community are even skeptical of its existence. Janicic-Kahric estimates that about 5 percent of Americans experience sugar crash.

Normal blood sugar levels can range widely, so it’s possible to rapidly yo-yo without crash symptoms. But if you do experience sugar crash – or generally want to avoid fluctuating blood sugar because it’s taxing on the body – eat your small portion of sweet treats after a meal, said registered dietitian Cheryl Harris.

“It really helps to have fiber and protein along with sugar,” she said. “It slows things down.”

Even fat helps blunt the blow of pure sugar into the blood stream, she said.

In other words, if you eat the jelly beans after dinner, you are less likely to experience a blood sugar roller-coaster and a subsequent crash.

This probably is why blood sugar crash is more widely reported among children, Harris said, as kids are more likely to ingest pure sugar in the form of soda or candy on an empty stomach.

And it doesn’t take much soda to get up to the AHA guideline. A 12-ounce Coca-Cola, for example, is the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar – already more than the daily recommended intake.

But what about fruit?

Fruit is different, said Angela Ginn, a nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“I like to focus on foods that have natural sugars – like fruit,” Ginn said. “And at the same time limit the added, refined sugars.”

In other words, you are not likely to experience a crash from eating too many apples because of the fiber. Apple juice, on the other hand, lacks fiber, so you could sugar crash from drinking too much, Janicic-Kahric said.

Is it dangerous to experience sudden blood glucose highs and lows?

“It’s disputable,” Janicic-Kahric said. We do know that too much sugar can cause weight gain, and weight gain causes a whole host of health problems including diabetes, she said.

Refined sugar is a relative newcomer on the human dietary scene. It’s seductive and sweet, but maybe the human body isn’t yet equipped to deal with large amounts, Harris said.

“When we evolved, it wasn’t common that we knocked down a beehive to access pure sugar. We got sugar through fruit and berries,” she said. “We didn’t evolve for jelly beans.”

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