Have you ever had a sugar crash? You know that sudden fatigue, headache or irritability you might feel after eating, oh, a hundred jelly beans? If so, you are probably not alone.
The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 100 calories daily from refined sugar, 150 calories for men.
That translates, using our jelly-bean currency, into 10 jelly beans for women and 15 for men.
And that is your entire allotment for the day of refined sugar.
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“Many Americans eat about five times the amount of sugar they should consume,” says Natasa Janicic-Kahric, an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University Hospital.
That means that instead of the AHA-recommended six teaspoons, many women are consuming as much as 30 teaspoons of sugar; and men are consuming 45 teaspoons of sugar instead of nine.
High levels of sugar flood the blood and create sudden spikes and drops in blood sugar levels. This can — but doesn’t necessarily — cause a “sugar crash” (sudden headache, fatigue, irritability, increased heart rate, anxiety), says Janicic-Kahric, though it’s not known how many people experience this problem.
In fact, some in the medical community are even skeptical of its existence, Janicic-Kahric says. “But I see patients with these symptoms and would estimate that about 5 percent of Americans experience sugar crash,” she says.
Normal blood sugar levels can range pretty widely, so it’s possible to rapidly yo-yo between these numbers without the symptoms of sugar crash. But if you do experience sugar-crash symptoms — or if you just generally want to stave off having fluctuating blood sugar because it’s taxing on the body — eat your small portion of sweet treats after a meal, says Cheryl Harris, registered dietitian in Fairfax, Va., and owner of Harris Whole Health.
“It really helps to have fiber and protein along with sugar,” Harris says. “It slows things down.”
Even fat helps blunt the blow of pure sugar into the blood stream, she says.
In other words, if you eat the jelly beans after dinner, you are less likely to experience a blood sugar roller-coaster and a subsequent crash.
This probably is why blood-sugar crash is more widely reported among children, Harris says, as kids are more likely to ingest pure sugar, in the form of soda or candy on an empty stomach.
And it doesn’t take much soda to get up to the AHA guideline: A 12-ounce Coca-Cola, for example, is the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar — already more than the daily recommended intake.
But what about sugar-packed fruit?
Fruit is different, says Angela Ginn, a Baltimore-based nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“I like to focus on foods that have natural sugars — like fruit,” Ginn says. “And at the same time limit the added, refined sugars.”
In other words, you are not likely to experience a crash from eating too many apples because of the fiber.
Apple juice, on the other hand, lacks fiber, so you could sugar crash from drinking too much, Janicic-Kahric says.
But back to candy: Is it better to eat, say, chocolate-covered nuts than Skittles?
“From a sugar-crash standpoint, yes,” Ginn says. “Anytime you can bring fiber and protein into the mix, it helps,” she says.
So, is it dangerous to experience sudden blood glucose highs and lows?
“It’s disputable,” Janicic-Kahric says. “Does too much insulin cause heart disease? Is a surge of insulin bad?”
It’s not clear, she says.
What we do know is that too much sugar can cause weight gain, and weight gain causes a whole host of health problems including diabetes, she says.
So, how should we monitor how much sugar we consume?
If you like to add sugar yourself, such as with coffee or tea, Ginn suggests monitoring the amount by using sugar cubes (15 calories of sugar per cube).
“If you use sugar in your coffee or tea, this is a way to keep an eye on exactly how much you are using,” Ginn says. It gets harder when refined sugar is already added into a food product, especially those without nutrition labels.
In the end, refined sugar is a relative newcomer on the human dietary scene. It’s seductive and sweet, but maybe the human body isn’t yet equipped to deal with large amounts, Harris says.
“When we evolved it wasn’t common that we knocked down a beehive to access pure sugar. We got sugar through fruit and berries,” Harris says.
“We didn’t evolve for jelly beans.”