Updated: Jun 2
There’s a lot of confusing and conflicting information about how sugar can and should factor into the diet. For example, are some types of sugar healthier than others? Should all sugars, including fruit, be avoided? Will eliminating sugar help you lose weight, clear up your acne, or alleviate your sleep troubles?
Read on to learn more about sugar so you can decide how (and whether!) to include it in your eating approach.
Most people eat too much sugar. Sweet cereal for breakfast in addition to sweetened juice, for lunch a fruit rollup, granola bar or candy with a sandwich, and with dinner a drink like soda or other sugary beverage. Dessert might be ice cream or cookies, and it goes on.
Yes, it's true! Sugar gives us a lot of energy at first, but then it makes us really tired and cranky, and always wanting more sugar. Some people get headaches or feel sick from eating sugar. If you've experienced these symptoms, then you've experienced a classic case of sugar crash. So, let's start with the basics.
SWEET BASICS - In their simplest form, sugars are carbohydrates composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are three main types of sugars: monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides.
Blood sugar is sugar carried to cells in the bloodstream for energy. Blood sugar levels rise after consuming meals with carbohydrates, especially those full of simple sugars, which are digested and absorbed quickly. Blood sugar levels also rise during times of stress or illness; they dip during times of rest, following exercise, and when meals are skipped. The body works continuously to adjust and regulate blood sugar levels through hormone signaling. These levels are regulated by two primary hormones: insulin and glucagon. Continually elevated blood sugar levels may contribute to weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. It can also damage a variety of body organs and systems.
SUGAR AND HEALTH - Humans are biologically programmed to seek out sugar. Sweet flavors tell the body that something is safe to eat, while bitterness signals “poison.” Sugar breaks down into glucose and fructose, which can be stored as fat for times when food is scarce. Our prehistoric ancestors faced famine and food shortages, so they consumed high quantities of carbohydrate-rich foods whenever they could. People who ate more sugar were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. In other words, storing sugar as fat is an evolutionary survival mechanism. In today’s world, sugar is abundantly available from many sources. However, we are still programmed to seek it out, which means that many of us eat more than we need to survive and thrive. Overconsumption of sugar intake can affect health in many ways, including:
Increased likelihood of memory deficits and risk of Alzheimer’s disease
Increased blood pressure and triglycerides, which may cause cardiovascular disease
Increased likelihood of dental cavities
Increased risk of asthma
Distorting the hunger and satiety hormones, causing overeating and increased risk of obesity
Potential insulin resistance and possibly higher risk of type 2 diabetes
Disrupting the gut microbiome and negatively impairing immunity
Promoting inflammation, the underlying cause of many chronic diseases
Replacing nutrient-dense calories, possibly leading to vitamin deficiencies, even if caloric needs are being met or exceeded
While some sugar in the diet helps our bodies move quickly and can help us stay alert, too much sugar can spike blood sugar and lead to crashes. This spike and crash pattern may contribute to larger health problems, including obesity and heart disease.
NATURAL VERSUS ADDED SUGARS - Natural sugars exist in fruits and vegetables and typically increase as they ripen. Though you are consuming sugar, you’re also consuming vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, which, in particular, can help reduce the glucose spike associated with eating sugar. Sugar is sometimes added to foods and beverages during processing. Foods with added sugar tend to be higher in calories and lower in nutritional value, and they don’t usually offer the additional vitamins, minerals, and fiber that foods with natural sugars offer.
Fiber makes us feel fuller for longer because it’s a more difficult molecule to digest. Without fiber to signal fullness, foods that contain added sugars are more likely to be consumed in excess. Additionally, these foods are often packaged as snacks or desserts, so they are more likely to be consumed on their own, possibly leading to a more significant spike in blood glucose levels.
Foods that may contain sneaky sugar include:
Plant milks (such as almond and coconut)
Cured meats (such as bacon and prosciutto)
Deli meats (such as ham and turkey)
Condiments (such as mustard and ketchup)
Sauces (such as marinara or barbecue)
Cereals and granola bars
SUGAR IN THE WILD - When reading ingredient labels on packaged foods, you may be surprised to find that sugar isn’t always labeled clearly. Some common forms of sugar are listed below so you can be well informed when grocery shopping.
Sugars: brown sugar, cane sugar, confectioner’s sugar, raw sugar
Syrups: cane syrup, date syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, maple syrup, refiner’s syrup, rice syrup
-Oses: dextrose, fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose, ribose, saccharose, sucrose •
-Ides: disaccharide, monosaccharide, polysaccharide
Natural sugars: agave, coconut nectar, coconut sugar, date sugar, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice, honey, maple syrup, molasses, monk fruit extract, rice malt, sorghum, stevia, treacle
Artificial sweeteners: aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet’n Low), stevia (Truvia), sucralose (Splenda) • Sugar alcohols: erythritol, glycerol, sorbitol, xylitol
SUGAR CRASH - When the afternoon low hits, do you often find yourself reaching for a sweet treat or are you just constantly craving sweets? If so, give these sugar alternatives a try. They're natural and simple ways to satisfy your sugar cravings, with an added bonus of feeling better and much healthier minus the sugar crash.
· Eat fruit to get a naturally sweet taste such as grapes, mangos, and bananas.
· Eat sweet vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, carrots and squash.
· Drink seltzer or water with a little juice instead of soda.
· Bake your own desserts and treats using natural sweeteners, my favorite is date syrup.
· Eat more grains, chewing well to release their natural sweetness.
Some people believe we should consume little to no sugar, while others believe our bodies need carbohydrates to perform the millions of daily functions required to sustain life. Some people believe that the source of the sugar doesn’t matter because our bodies break it down into glucose either way, while others believe that only naturally occurring sugar is okay. As with other eating approaches, sugar consumption is bio-individual. Still, staying mindful of your intake can be an important aspect of preventing inflammation and disease.
If you've learned something new from reading this blog and inspired to curb your own sugar cravings, then grab your Free Sugar Cleanse Cheat Sheet, filled with 9 practical tips to help you get started.
Carvalho, C., Cardoso, S., Correia, S. C., Santos, R. X., & Santos, M. S., . . . Moreira, P. I. (2012). Metabolic alterations induced by sucrose intake and Alzheimer’s disease promote similar brain mitochondrial abnormalities. Diabetes 61(5), 234–1242. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22427376
Johnson, R. J., Segal, M. S., Sautin, Y., Nakagawa, T., Feig, D. I., & Kang, D. H., . . . Sánchez-Lozada, L. G. (2007). Potential role of sugar (fructose) in the epidemic of hypertension, obesity and the metabolic syndrome, diabetes, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr 86(4), 899–906. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17921363
Park, S., Akinbami, L. J., McGuire, L. C., & Blanck, H. M. (2016). Association of sugar-sweetened beverage intake frequency and asthma among U.S. adults, 2013. Prev Med 91, 58–61. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27496394
Mitra, A., Gosnell, B. A., Schiöth, H. B., Grace, M. K., Klockars, A., Olszewski, P. K., & Levine, A. S. (2010). Chronic sugar intake dampens feeding-related activity of neurons synthesizing a satiety mediator, oxytocin. Peptides 31(7), 1346–1352. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20399242
Malik, V. S., Popkin, B. M., Bray, G. A., Després, J. P., Willett, W. C., 7 Hu, F. B. (2010). Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes: A meta-analysis. Diabetes Care 33(11), 2477–2483. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20693348