Your Biggest Questions about Sugar, Answered
Question 1: What does sugar do to our bodies?
Sugars are carbohydrates, and they provide quick energy for our bodies (which is why many of us reach for a sugary treat during that mid-afternoon slump at work). However, unlike starches, fiber, and cellulose, which are complex carbohydrates, sugar is a simple carbohydrate. The more complex the molecule, the slower it digests. Since sugar is a simple carb, it digests quickly, while starches and fiber are complex carbs and digest more slowly. This is why eating fiber and healthy starches (think potatoes or brown rice) will help you feel full longer, yet you are often hungry again an hour after eating a bowl of cereal or a pastry.
Question 2: So what about the connection between sugar and our health?
While sugar itself may not be the primary culprit in weight gain, the problem comes from how much of it we consume. Sweet, sugary foods are usually processed and highly palatable (ie. delicious), and since they are digested so quickly, they overstimulate the reward/pleasure centers in our brain, leading us to overeat them (this is why it is so difficult to only eat one cookie out of the box). Therefore, we are likely to ingest more calories throughout the day through overconsumption of sugary foods. Sugar feeds sugar cravings, so if you start the day with a rush of sugar, you’re more likely to reach for a sugary snack at lunch, and a sugary dessert after dinner.
Studies have linked intake of refined sugar with insulin resistance, which can increase the risk of diabetes. A recent study found that for every 150 calorie increase in daily sugar intake (or 37 grams of sugar – roughly the amount in one 12oz can of soda, the risk of diabetes increased by about 1.1%. Eating too much sugar can also increase accumulation of fat in the liver, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes.
Question 3: How much sugar should we be eating in a day?
Each of us is different, and each person’s response to sugar will be a little different. Some of us may be able to tolerate higher amounts of sugar in our diet. However, the bottom line is that sugar doesn’t nourish our bodies, it adds little to no nutritional value to our diets, and provides us with no vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, water, or fiber. It doesn’t make our bodies stronger, healthier, or more functional, or improve us physically. Simply speaking, even though it tastes good, it is empty calories, and wouldn’t you rather get your calories from foods that will also provide health benefits for your body?
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sugar to 10% of your daily calories. Do the math – if you’re eating 1800 calories a day, that means 180 calories from sugar, or 45 grams of sugar (180/4, since there are 4 calories per gram of sugar).
Question 4: What are the best and worst sources of sugars?
Here’s a good way to visualize it in order of preference:
- The best sources of sugar are the naturally-occuring sugars that come from minimally processed whole foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dairy.)
- Natural sugars in more concentrated forms in foods such as honey, dried fruits, and fruit juices.
- Sugar in semi-processed forms such as maple syrup, coconut sugar, agave nectar.
- Sugar in processed foods (granulated sugar, high fructose corn syrup).
Read your food labels! Sugar is prominent in processed foods, and one of the easiest ways to minimize your sugar intake is to limit your consumption of processed foods. Salad dressings, frozen dinners, and most sauces are full of sugar. Beware of hidden sugars in processed “health foods” such as yogurt, granola, protein bars, and juices. When shopping, try to purchase as many foods as possible without food labels at all (such as whole fruits and veggies, raw nuts, beans, and legumes, and meats and seafood). Transitioning away from processed foods to a diet rich in whole foods without labels is a great way to reduce your sugar intake while increasing your nutrient intake.
Question 5: What are the different names for sugar?
There are a ton! Here’s a sampling to watch for on food labels (this isn’t even all of them!)
- Glucose (simple sugar that is absorbed by our body – carbs are broken down into glucose for energy)
- Fructose (found in fruit)
- Sucrose, aka table sugar (which is glucose + fructose)
- Lactose (galactose + glucose, found in dairy)
Here’s some other ingredients that are essentially just more names for sugar:
- High fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener
- Granulated sugar, confectioners sugar, brown sugar, turbinado sugar
- Maple syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Agave nectar
- Fruit juice
- Raw sugar, palm sugar, date sugar
- Cane juice, cane sugar
- Barley malt, malt syrup
Challenge yourself to eat less sugar! Read the food labels around your kitchen, and look for the ingredients from the above list. What items in your house have hidden sugars? Next time you go grocery shopping, which items can you swap out for brands without added sugars?
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