Correction to This Article
This column misstated the year in which Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" was published. The book came out in 1935.

How Sweet It Is: Coming to Grips With America's Sugar-Heavy Diet

(By Anthony Lee -- Getty Images/OJO Images)
By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In her 1835 book "Little House on the Prairie," Laura Ingalls Wilder described in awed tones the joy of receiving for Christmas a single stick of peppermint candy, which she licked sparingly. There wouldn't be another until next Christmas, at least.

I remember reading the "Little House" books curled up in my beanbag chair, often stuffing myself with candy (most memorably Bonomo's Turkish Taffy), wondering how a kid could get so worked up over one little candy cane.

In the century and three-quarters since Laura strolled the prairie, American sugar consumption has shot sky-high. In 2007, our per capita intake of caloric sweeteners (refined cane and beet sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and others) was more than 97 pounds per year, up from nearly 85 pounds in 1970, according to USDA data. Our taste for sweets has grown to encompass artificial sweeteners, which have expanded our opportunities to keep sweet flavors in our mouths day in and day out.

Is it too late to turn back, to wean ourselves from sweet foods and drinks so that they once again become special treats, not mainstays of our daily diet?

Humans are born with an affinity for sweet-tasting substances. Neal Barnard, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at George Washington University and author of "Breaking the Food Seduction" (and president/founder of the pro-vegetarian Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), points out that in nature, sweet taste signals that fruit, for instance, is ripe, at its nutritional peak, tempting people to eat it just when it's best for them. Sugar may also release opiates in the brain, he says, and it has analgesic qualities; babies given sugar water before getting heel-sticks cry less during the procedure, he notes.

Sugar -- and even high-fructose corn syrup, now the main caloric sweetener in the American diet -- isn't inherently evil. At just 16 calories per teaspoon, both could in moderation be part of a reasonable, balanced diet.

Though the connection seems obvious, nobody has definitively linked increased intake of sweeteners to the rise of obesity; that rise may have more to do with increased portion sizes and overall caloric intake than with any single food. In fact, the most compelling argument the USDA makes against sugar in its 2005 dietary guidelines is that it might contribute to dental caries, or cavities, among children (though even that's questionable, because the kids who eat tons of sugar may be the same kids who don't brush their teeth enough). The guidelines even note that adding sugar to such items as breakfast cereals might lead to more kids' consuming the wholesome grains they need.

At the same time, the guidelines recommend eating nutrient-dense (i.e. low-fat, low-sugar) foods: After the day's nutrient needs are met, there aren't many discretionary calories -- just about 150 to 200 per day -- left over to be consumed through extra fat, sugar and alcohol.

But a single 12-ounce can of Pepsi has 150 calories, and a plain old 1.55-ounce Hershey milk-chocolate bar has 210. While those sweets are relatively easy to keep track of, caloric sweeteners lurk in all kinds of commercial products, from ketchup to bread and almost every baked good on the shelf. Add up all those hidden sugar sources and you'll blow through those 200 discretionary calories in no time. Barnard observes that sugar is a "Trojan horse": Sugary foods such as doughnuts, cakes and pies are often also filled with high-calorie fats.

Still, Barnard's not arguing against sugar: He suggests people decide for themselves whether sugar is exacting enough of a price in their lives that they want to cut back. Once they come to that point, though, Barnard offers a few suggestions:

· Gird yourself against cravings by getting plenty of sleep and maintaining level blood sugar, choosing low-glycemic-index foods such as oatmeal, beans, pasta, fruit and vegetables to keep your blood sugar stable.

· Don't throw the baby out with the bath water: Continue to eat fruit even as you seek to eliminate other sweet-tasting foods.

· Enlist friends and relatives in your quest. "We tend to eat like those around us," Barnard says. "We need to get those people on our side."

· Get plenty of exercise, which helps by making you feel better mentally and physically, tiring you out (see "getting plenty of sleep," above) and providing a distraction. "You can't eat a doughnut while riding a bike," he notes.

Barnard cautions that, unfortunately, moderation doesn't work for most people. "So many people ask, 'How do I moderate these things [that I crave]? I want to enjoy them, but I want to be in control.' "

People don't like hearing his answer, he says. "For almost everyone, it's easier just to get them out of your life. You crave today what you had yesterday. You might just have to say, 'I'm just not doing chocolate [or sugar in general] anymore,' " he says.

But Chicago dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner thinks you can temper your sweet tooth by using those discretionary calories wisely. Blatner, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says you can reframe your relationship with sweets by adjusting your ideas about snacks vs. treats. A snack, she points out, has some nutritional value and can help tide you over between meals in a healthful way. A treat, though, is a food for which we have no nutritional expectations, an item that feels like, well, a real treat, pure and simple.

"We've made it okay to 'treat' ourselves to sweets all day long," Blatner says, by snacking on sweetened foods. Shifting sweets to the "treat" category can be a way to limit consumption and make sweets seem special once again.

Check out today's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer reports on whether moderation or quitting cold turkey is best for breaking a food habit. Subscribe to the weekly Lean & Fit nutrition newsletter by going to and searching for "newsletters." Go to the Wednesday Food section to find Nourish, a new feature with a recipe for healthful eating every week. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at

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