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How added and too much sugar affects the body, plus easy alternatives to add sweetness

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(NEW YORK) — Everyone has different relationships with diet and sugar, but when that sweet tooth turns on, it can be hard to combat cravings in a healthy way.

ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton lent her expertise as a nutritionist to break down the overall impact sugar has on our bodies as well as some alternate ways to satisfy that sweet tooth.

How much added sugar is recommended for adults?

The brain, as with every cell in our bodies, needs glucose to function, so while not all sugar is bad, too much added sugar can pose problems.

For most adult women, the American Heart Association suggests a stricter added-sugar limit of no more than 100 calories per day, which is equal to about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams; for most men, the suggestion is no more than 150 calories per day, which is about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar.

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However, common processed snacks and drinks can contain much more than the recommended amount, which is why reading labels is so pivotal.

For example, a 12-ounce can of cola contains 10 1/4 teaspoons of sugar; a 12-ounce glass of orange juice contains 13 teaspoons of sugar; a cup of frosted corn flakes cereal has 3.65 teaspoons; and sweetened applesauce has a little over 5 teaspoons in one cup.

Negative impact of too much sugar in the body

Using a wet sponge, Dr. Ashton demonstrated how too much sugar can be damaging to the way a body processes and stores it.

The water in the sponge represents insulin — a hormone mainly responsible for regulating blood sugars that allows cells to take in the sugar — and when a small amount of sugar is sprinkled evenly over the surface, the sugar is absorbed quickly and easily. But on a second sponge topped with heaping spoonfuls of sugar, the sponge is unable to absorb all of the water, which is what it would look like if insulin was overloaded with sugar intake.

“You take a lot of sugar, your body can overwhelmed and you develop what’s called insulin resistance and that sugar stays there. It then gets deposited as fat, it causes inflammation,” Dr. Ashton explained. “Fat is hormonally active tissue, and then that gets you on the path to cancers, cardiovascular disease.”

How sugar affects pregnant women, in utero environment

Dr. Ashton merged her combined knowledge and two specialties as an OB-GYN and nutritionist to explain the impact sugar can have on a baby in pregnant women.

“There is good data for this phenomenon known as epigenetics, meaning [when] a pregnant woman consumes too much sugar, the fetus sees that high sugar environment, and then there are changes in DNA and increases the risk of that offspring then develops metabolic syndrome Type 2 diabetes, obesity,” she said.

Top sugar substitutes and tips

Dr. Ashton suggests people “take a five-day, two-day approach” which means being very strict Monday through Friday, then easing up for two days.

“Read the labels, use those spices as substitutes and be patient with yourself because it takes time to retrain your taste buds,” she said of three easy ways to cut down on sugar.

Swerve, avocado, whole fruit like citrus or apples, and honey are “all great sugar substitutes if you’re cooking or baking,” Ashton added.

Finally, anything that tastes “sweet” tends to produce the same reaction in the brain, activating the “reward center” and making you want more.

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