People who cut down on added sugars in their diets lost an average of about 1.7 pounds – a result researchers called small but significant.
The result was in a paper published online Tuesday in the British Medical Journal that analyzed 71 studies of sugar intake and weight. The World Health Organization recommended in 2003 that sugar intake be limited to 10% of calories; the agency commissioned this study as part of its intention to update its recommendation.
The studies also showed that increasing consumption of added sugars led to gaining about 1 1/2 pounds, the researchers from the University of Otago and Riddet Institute in New Zealand wrote.
Weight gain is just one of the health effects that some have attributed to sugar, but the researchers said it was the only one for which “definitive conclusions” could be reached. They used the term “free” sugars, which they defined as those added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer – as well as those in honey, syrups and fruit juices.
Walter Willett, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an accompanying editorial that reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is a high priority. That’s a stand many health activists and researchers have taken. He called policies such as soda taxes “useful,” and wrote that medical professionals should set an example.
The participants in the 71 studies had varying increases or decreases in sugar consumption. Evidence for children was less consistent, the researchers said. That was mostly because of poor compliance with dietary advice, they said.
Willett wrote that any particular limit is somewhat arbitrary. Ten percent of calories – 5% less than the average in the United States and United Kingdom – “could be viewed” as a realistic goal, he said. The American Heart Assn. suggests a 5% limit on calories from sugar in a diet, “which would be more consistent with a goal for optimal health,” Willett wrote.
“The association between sugar and poor health has remained contentious,” in part because of weaknesses in the data and in part because “powerful economic interests are invested in the production and sale of sugar-based products,” Willett wrote.
While Willett said he supports efforts to reduce sugar intake, he said that should be part of a broader effort that also would include eating fewer refined grain products and potatoes. He called for education and better food in schools among other measures to improve people’s diets.
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