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Added sugars linked to Minnesotans’ widening girths, U of M researchers find

The debate over the role of added sugars in America’s, um, ever-expanding obesity problem heated up a bit yesterday with the release of some new research findings from the University of Minnesota.
Using dietary and other health data collected by si

The debate over the role of added sugars in America’s, um, ever-expanding obesity problem heated up a bit yesterday with the release of some new research findings from the University of Minnesota.

Using dietary and other health data collected by six different surveys of Minnesotan adults between 1980 and 2009 (as part of the Minnesota Heart Survey study), the U of M researchers found that as our consumption of added sugars has increased, so has our body weight.

“We expected that added sugar [consumption] had been increasing,” said Huifen Wang, the study’s lead author and a PhD candidate in the U of M’s School of Public Health, in a phone interview Thursday. “But we see in the findings that it has been increasing consistently over time and concurrently with an increase in BMI [body mass index].”

Added sugars are sugars (both high-fructose syrup and ordinary table sugar) that are added during the processing or preparation of foods. They don’t include sugars that occur naturally in a food, such as fructose in fruit and lactose in milk.

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The new research doesn’t prove that added sugars are causing America’s obesity epidemic, Huifen pointed out. This type of study can show only a statistical association between two things, not a cause-and-effect.

But the findings do raise suspicions — and suggest, Huifen added, that public health officials should advise people to limit their added sugar intake.

Huifen presented the research findings, which have not yet been published, at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Atlanta, Ga., on Thursday.

Lyn Steffen
Lyn Steffen

What the data revealed
Huifen and her colleagues, including U of M epidemiologist Lyn Steffen, examined both gender and age group trends in the data from the surveys. They found that the consumption of added sugars has increased for both genders and for all age groups.

Further crunching of the data revealed some interesting findings:

  • The added-sugar intake of men increased by almost 40 percent between the first survey (1980-1982) and the last one (2007-2009). By 2009, Minnesotan men were consuming about 15 percent of their daily calories from added sugars.
  • Minnesota women, on the other hand, increased their added-sugar intake from about 10 percent of total calories in 1980-1982 to about 14 percent in 2007-2009.
  • Younger adults devoured more added sugars than older adults.

One positive finding: Added sugar consumption decreased by about 10 percent in both men and women in the years between the latest two surveys (taken in 2000-2002 and 2007-2009).  The average BMI of women also went down during this period, but not that of men. Their BMI continued to increase.

“That may be because of other lifestyle factors,” such as men spending less time exercising, said Wang.

Before you say, ‘duh’
OK. Before you charge that this is just another “duh” study, you should know that there’s been a lively dispute about just what’s making Americans’ girths widen. The sugar industry, in particular, likes to claim that there’s no link between sugar and obesity and that our weight gain is due to an increase in our overall calorie consumption and our lack of exercise.

And they have conducted their own research to prove it.

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But the evidence pointing to added sugars as a major factor in America’s (indeed, the world’s) obesity epidemic is strong — and getting stronger. Indeed, most health organizations recommend that we watch our added sugar intake. The American Heart Association, for example, advises American women to eat no more than 100 calories and men no more than 150 calories of added sugar daily.


Interview offering perspective on this research from AHA spokesperson, Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., M.PH, R.D., Associate Provost and Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont, Burlington, VT

The AHA also points out that soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are a leading source of added sugars in the American diet.

For tips on how to reduce the amount of added sugars in your diet, I recommend starting with those offered by the Mayo Clinic on its website.