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Sugars and sweets are a reality of our culinary tastes. The key to a healthy diet, though, is some moderation. Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony explains how you can have your cake and eat it, too.

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Finding the Sweet Spot for Sugar Consumption

Podcast Transcript

John Horton: Hey, there. Welcome to the Health Essentials Podcast. I'm John Horton, your host and well, let's just say someone with healthy intentions, whether it's diet or exercise or overall personal care. Each week, I'll be joining you with one of our many experts from Cleveland Clinic to share health advice that you can trust and maybe used to live and feel a little better and pursue your own healthy intentions.

And that brings us to today's episode, which is on sugar. Now, let's start with a basic fact. Food with sugar tastes good. Like really, really good. So the goal here isn't to be a complete buzz kill about sugar. You will not hear us talking about how you can never have an ice cream sundae, but the reality is that too much sugar can affect how you feel. So we're going to chat about moderation and about how much is too much when it comes to sugar. Cleveland Clinic's Beth Czerwony, a registered dietician who also enjoys the occasional sugary treat, is here to give us the low down. Beth, so glad that you could join us here today. How you doing?

Beth Czerwony: I'm doing great. How are you?

John Horton: I'm doing fabulous. We're talking about sugar. So I know you and I have talked and you are definitely somebody who will not ... you're not like a dietician who will not eat anything that might not be the best for you. So what's your favorite sugary treat?

Beth Czerwony: Probably anything chocolate. I think that that's gives a good range of really good opportunities to have something. So yeah, I don't think that you should ever say no to anything sweet. I think it's all part of what we can do. We can make it all work.

John Horton: Well, so it's a matter of balancing it out, which I think is what we are going to talk about today. So let's start with a pretty basic thing, and when you eat sugar, what does it do to your body?

Beth Czerwony: Yeah, so sugar really is one of the just, the basic forms of energy that we consume. And actually back when we were cavemen our bodies preferred sugary foods because we knew that that was safe. Things that were bitter or sour could potentially be poisonous. So just through evolution alone, a lot of us tend to be more liking sweet things. So really, it gives us energy. That's the basis of all of it. Anything that's going to have whether it's refined sugar, complex sugar any of those is going to break down to sugar and it gives us energy.

John Horton: OK, well I know when you eat a lot of sugar, you do, you get that sugar rush, that buzz, right?

Beth Czerwony: You do. Your blood sugars go up and it goes up for a little bit and your brain says Oh, my gosh, thank you for feeding me. This is fantastic.” But then over time, it crashes, and that's a lot of times what happens when people are eating too much sugar or too often.

John Horton: Yeah, yeah. Well, and let's talk about some of the other things that happen when you have too much sugar. Because I know there's a lot of health conditions that are kind of related to if you're overdoing it.

Beth Czerwony: Absolutely. Not too many people have these wonderful metabolisms that they can have as much sugar as they want and they don't gain any weight because it's energy. And if you have too much calories and you're not expending it, you're going to end up gaining some weight. Right. So you're going to end up having some more fat stored. So having increased fat stores causes a lot of health conditions. Anything from Type 2 diabetes to fatty liver perhaps if you are gaining too much weight, you can get hypertension. And there's actually some studies that actually coordinate elevated weight with some cancers. So really knowing your diet and streamlining it and making it work really in the long run can really help decrease any chances that you're going to get these long-term chronic diseases.

John Horton: What about smaller issues? Because I know, obviously, there's those big picture things like you said diabetes and high blood pressure and weight gain. But I know just on a smaller scale, if you just pound down candy for a day, I mean your belly doesn't feel good, headaches. I mean, what is that doing?

Beth Czerwony: That's just because of the fluctuation in not only the blood sugars themselves. Because if you think about it and you eat a lot of sugar, and your blood sugar goes up, and then all of a sudden, it just tanks, that takes a lot of energy out of you. So that's where you're going to get those headaches. You're going to get the stomach aches when you're eating a lot of sugar because your stomach doesn't know what to do with all that sugar. It actually is going to pull water to try to dilute it. So that ends up making you have some diarrhea. So you're getting belly aches, you're getting loose stool. I mean, and then, let's think about it you got all this energy, you crash. Now, you are feeling like crud. You don't want to feel like doing anything. So thinking that you're doing yourself a favor by having more sugar in the morning, by the mid-afternoon, end of the day, you're done. You're done. So it's really not worth super intake in that in the beginning of the day. It just doesn't work out for you.

And the thing, too, is think about it if you're tired, maybe you were up late the night before a lot of times what happens is your body ends up thinking that you're hungrier than actually you are. And what do we look for? We're not looking for something super intense to eat. We're looking for some junk, right? So we're looking for the pastries, we're looking for the donuts. And again, that's going to give us that rush that we're looking for. But then again, we got to chase it all day, the ups and the downs of that blood sugar.

John Horton: Well, and you're right, it's so easy to grab that sort of stuff because it seems like it's always sort of accessible and like I said, it tastes good.

Beth Czerwony: Exactly. Yeah.

John Horton: So, when we're looking at sugar, is there a recommended amount that you should have in a day?

Beth Czerwony: So there's actually not. So typically, we'll have our recommended dietary allowances of certain vitamins and minerals, but there's no set amount for sugar. And so what I recommend is anything that you're going to have, just make sure it's in single digits. There are some organizations that say no more than 35 grams for the day. So I think that really looking at where is your sugar coming from, too. Is it coming from sweets? Is it coming from yogurt? Is it coming from granola bars? And kind of managing it out that way. But again, just trying to have single digits any time that you're going to eat something is probably going to be a good way to manage it.

John Horton: And single digits, you're talking about the grams of sugar that you find on the nutrition guidelines.

Beth Czerwony: Yes.

John Horton: On the side of OK. All right. Now, you brought up some things there I wanted to kind of get over to. The whole time we've been talking, we've been kind of focusing on junk food and the candy and the donuts and all that stuff. But the reality is, sugar is in I mean, food that is also good for you. And so I take it you have to pay attention to that, too.

Beth Czerwony: You do. And sugar comes in different forms. It comes in different names. So really looking at things like high fructose corn syrup and sucrose, those are other names for sugar that wouldn't just necessarily say sugar. Right. So looking at things that are going to be associated. Now remember things that have sugar in them also a lot of times will pair with salt because it tastes better. So look in your condiments. There's a lot of times, especially in barbecue sauces and different kinds of just glazes, that are going to have sugar and is going to have salt. So looking at that, like I said, granola bars, we're talking just really anything that's going to be processed that's going to be boxed or going to be bottled. You really need to be mindful of that and look at that label.

John Horton: Yeah, yeah, so it's hidden in a lot of places and I think sometimes, you don't even realize how much you're getting, but it's just, it's there.

Beth Czerwony: Absolutely. And looking, too, I think is important. And when we're looking at the food label, it's not just looking at what the serving size is, but understand how much of that you're going to have. So if a serving size said you're going to have a tablespoon and it has 12 grams of sugar, but you're going to have three or four tablespoons, you have to understand, you have to multiply that out. So understanding that as well is going to be important if managing the sugar intake is something that's important to you.

John Horton: Well, speaking of intake, I mean, can you be addicted to sugar? I mean, is that actually a thing?

Beth Czerwony: So there's no set diagnosis, per se, so you're not going have that in your medical record. But when talking to patients, that is a very strong opinion that they come in and say, I'm addicted to sugar, I need to break this habit. So looking at that and really getting a good idea of what is their intake. A lot of times people that are skipping meals are going to feel that they're addicted to sugar or people that are not getting in enough protein or good, like actual food, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, because their diet is lacking in all the other nutrition, their body tends to want to have that quick pick me up. So a lot of times, people really will come in feeling that they have this addiction to sugar.

John Horton: Maybe the goal isn't to say just zero sugar, you're going to cut everything. I take it, that doesn't work real well.

Beth Czerwony: I mean there are some people that are very black and white and they're able to do that, but for most of us weaning off and just decreasing either the frequency or the volume of how much you're having is going to be a better idea than just going cold turkey.

John Horton: So what are some little tricks you can do with that?

Beth Czerwony: The first thing is tracking your intake to see, what am I really doing? How much of this am I actually having? Because you may not think that you're having that much. And then if you look back and you track it, you're like, Oh, my gosh, I'm having something every day or a couple times every day. And so trying to figure out how can you cut that down. So again, getting smaller portions, saying,I'm going to just have this at the end of the night if I get in my five fruits and vegetables, or if, I make sure I have some sort of, or I have to drink 64 ounces of water. So kind of making it, not that you aren't allowed to have it, but you have to reach your other goals first before it, and then at that time, maybe you don't even want it, but at least if you don't make it a taboo, then you're going to less likely to crave it.

John Horton: Yeah, yeah, so the key is just to, you don't want to necessarily just deny yourself everything, but just you have to moderate it and make sure that you're not taking in too much.

Beth Czerwony: Exactly. And just fill in the rest of your diet with fresh fruits and vegetables and some lean proteins and then it'll work itself out because those blood sugars will be much more stable and so you won't get those highs and lows, and then the cravings for the sugar will be decreased.

John Horton: Yeah, yeah. Any other advice you can give us, Beth?

Beth Czerwony: Being perfect is boring, so I think it's OK to have a little bit of anything. And it's really, I mean, track your intake, know what you're doing, and if you need help, look for help. Whether it's through the dietician or your PCP or even some friends. I think that that's an important part of having support when you want to better your life.

John Horton: Great advice. Thank you so much for being here. We're looking forward to having you back on the podcast at some point.

Beth Czerwony: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.

John Horton: I hope you found that conversation as interesting as I did. It's a good reminder that you can have your cake and eat it, too. Just don't eat the whole cake at once. Until next time, be well.

Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Health Essentials, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. To make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or visit This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician.

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