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Heart experts sour on sugar

Today, the average American will consume 22 teaspoons of added sugar. This isn't just the table sugar you may add to your breakfast cereal or the kids' Kool-Aid. It's the sugar in soft drinks, candy, cakes, cookies and pies. And it's in foods you might consider as healthful choices, such as granola and yogurt.

The American Heart Association now recommends that Americans significantly reduce their sugar intake as a means to improve their overall health. While there is no direct link between sugar and heart disease, overconsumption can result in obesity and high blood pressure, which are risk factors for heart disease.

Reducing sugar consumption is easier said than done, however. For one, sugary snacks taste good. We all have our favorite cookies, candy bars and ice cream, right?

But people who want to abide by this latest health recommendation will experience challenges beyond their own food cravings. Calculating sugar intake can be confusing. The federal government does not require food labels to differentiate between added sugar and naturally occurring sugars in fruit, vegetables and dairy. To further confuse matters, sugar can be labeled as corn syrup, fructose, dextrose or molasses.

Aside from the health risks, a diet laden with added sugar means fewer essential nutrients are consumed. Instead of eating a candy bar for an afternoon pick-me-up, an apple is a far healthier alternative. An apple has about 81 calories, vitamins C, A and a fair amount of dietary fiber. A candy bar has at least 200 calories, derives about a third of its calories from fat and has negligible vitamin or mineral content.

Such lifestyle changes can be difficult, however, particularly for children whose food choices are largely dictated by their parents. Parents should strictly limit soft drink consumption and substitute sugary snacks such as cookies and cakes with popcorn and fruit. Fruit juices have high sugar content so they should be offered to children sparingly.

A national health survey suggests that teens ages 14-18 consume 34 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which likely accounts for higher rates of childhood obesity and higher incidences of Type 2 diabetes, a disease usually diagnosed in adults 40 years or older. Cardiovascular disease is one possible complication of diabetes.

Although reducing sugar intake is the best course, there's one other option for people who can't seem to rid their diets of snack cakes, soft drinks or candy bars — regular exercise. Don't kid yourself, though. Filling up on junk food means there is less room for nutrient-rich food the body needs.

Somehow, Americans need to view their bodies as machines that require a certain amount and type of fuel to perform at their best. Twenty-two teaspoons of added sugar is, by any measure, a poor choice.