When it comes to sugar, the role it plays and what exactly is healthy, there is an abundance of confusion. Fortunately, science, human physiology and the molecular structure of whole natural foods versus processed foods makes this a simple and easy topic to explain.
I have broken down my explanation into a number of common questions that will help you gain a better understanding of this topic:
WHAT ARE SUGARS?
Sugars are a form of carbohydrates known as simple carbohydrates for their short molecular structure and rapid rate of absorption into the blood.
The main sugar, glucose, is used for energy production throughout the body and is the primary fuel that our brain runs on. In fact, the brain uses approximately 120g of glucose per day when the body is at resting state (over 400 calories a day burned as fuel for the brain) (1). Glucose is also stored within the muscles and the liver as glycogen (many glucose molecules joined together) as ‘energy tanks’ so that the body has an even supply of glucose to supply the brain, muscles, blood and other areas of the body for important physiological reactions (Glycolysis) which produce energy compounds known as ATP.
That’s right, sugar is a necessary fuel that our body needs for optimal brain and energy production. Despite ‘sugar’ being slammed in the media and deemed the bad guy through Chinese Whispers, it is a very important molecule for our health and the functioning of the human body. However, it’s essential to distinguish between the forms of sugar to really understand what sugars are good for us and which should be minimised
Sugars can be either: Natural (whole food sugars) in their natural state or Refined and then added to processed or semi processed foods to create added sweetness.
As humans, we have been eating natural sugars from the early days. Sugars in plants offer the body a source of glucose which is the primary fuel our body uses for energy. Over time, because of humans desire for sugar, we worked out how to extract sugars and add them to processed foods. When the food industry realised that they could create refined sugars and ultimately artificially make foods sweeter than in their natural state foods, they took advantage of this to create greater consumer appeal and increased sales.
This is where the conflict between nature and manufactured foods began – and this is where our problems began too. By artificially enhancing the sweetness of our foods, this process allows us to consume way more sugar than we would if we were eating naturally occurring sugars in their whole plant form, because they are more concentrated and provide less satiety. The bottom line is that sugar itself is not ‘harmful’, it’s a molecule our body is able to use for energy very well – but the excessive consumption of refined and added sugars that are present in virtually all of the manufactured foods in supermarkets that is to be rightfully demonised for being linked to a range of poor health outcomes including Type 2 diabetes, cancer and decreased immunity.
IS THE SUGAR IN A WHOLE FRUIT SMOOTHIE BOWL THE SAME AS SUGAR IN FRUIT JUICE OR ADDED SUGARS IN PROCESSED FOODS?
When you juice a plant or fruit, the % of sugar consumed actually increases because in the juicing process you lose most of the fibre and some phytonutrients. In short, the grams of sugar stay the same but as a % of total volume it’s greater.
So, is a fresh juice bad for you? No, and with health being a spectrum it’s definitely healthier than drinking a long shelf life, heavily processed juice from your local convenience store. However, if you have the choice of a daily smoothie bowl with whole fruits versus a juice, and both fit in your daily calorie intake, I would be choosing the smoothie bowl. Click here for a great smoothie bowl recipe.
WHAT IS A HEALTHY LEVEL OF SUGAR CONSUMPTION?
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 tsp (24g) of sugar for women and 9 tsp (36g) for men per day (with increased levels of activity this can go up). You may be wondering – what does this actually look like? Being able to visualise how many tsp of sugar are in certain foods you consume can be helpful in ensuring you don’t consume over the recommended daily amount. The best way to do this is by knowing that 4g of sugar = roughly 1 tsp. For example, if you have 5 Tim Tams (8g sugar per Tim Tam), you are consuming approx. 10 tsp of sugar.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUGARS AND NON-NUTRITIVE SWEETENERS?
Non-Nutritive Sweeteners (NNS) provide fewer calories than sugars and are far sweeter (often 1,000’s of times sweeter). Examples of common NNS are Aspartame, Stevia, Saccharine and Sucralose. Although there has been some clinical studies suggesting they may help with weight loss or chronic disease, the evidence is not very convincing (3,4). Regarding weight loss, if we think about this logically, if you replace refined sugars for sweetener you would be consuming less calories and thus have a lower calorie intake per day. However, it’s not that simple. If you are consuming foods that are artificially sweetened, and often even sweeter than products with standard sugars, you are likely to eat more of them. With the added bonus of receiving many more nutrients with fruit consumption, enjoying the natural sugars in fruits far outweighs the sweetness of non-nutritive sweeteners. Perhaps this tricking of the brain, and lure to over consume, is why today we are seeing such a rise in Type 2 diabetes and obesity in children (5).
Data from large, epidemiological studies support the existence of an association between artificially-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain in children…dissociation of the sensation of sweet taste from caloric intake may promote appetite, leading to increased food consumption and weight gain. In addition, increased consumption of added caloric sweeteners has been associated with poorer diet quality in children, perhaps by altering taste preferences toward sweetened foods in place of more healthful foods, such as fruits and vegetables, this mechanism could apply to artificial sweeteners as well (4)
FINALLY, MY ADVICE FOR CONSUMING SUGAR:
- Don’t fear unrefined natural sugars.
- Minimise processed food consumption and you will find it hard to go over the recommended daily sugar intake.
- Look for “no refined sugars” on food labels and read ingredient lists. Often, brands will use multiple sugars so that each one is pushed down to the end of the ingredient list (ingredient lists show ingredients from highest % to lowest). Ingredients ending in ‘ose’ are typically sugars, as are syrups, nectars, juice concentrates & molasses.
- During cooking or if adding sugar to sweets, use a less refined form like date sugar, coconut sugar and maple sugar.
- If you want a sweetener, which also offers valuable nutrition, go for Blackstrap Molasses. 2 tablespoons of this contains more calcium than a cup of milk, more iron than an 227g of steak, more magnesium than a cup of quinoa and more potassium than 2 bananas.
- Science suggests artificial sweeteners offer no real benefit vs sugars in terms of weight loss and may have negative health effects.
- Sugar alcohols like xylitol & erythritol appear safe for most but can cause gastrointestinal side effects. These, again, are a low-calorie substitute for sugar, but given their sweetness will leave you craving foods much sweeter than fruit, which can work negatively if you are watching your weight.
- Ultimately whole foods without refined sugars or added sweeteners should make up the majority, if not all, of your diet especially if weight loss is your goal. For weight loss to occur, you will need to be in a calorie deficit and when you remove refined sugars and sweeteners from your diet you will be less likely to crave ‘sweet’ treats and therefore less likely to fall into a calorie surplus.
Featured Image Source: @roomfortuesday