There’s a lot of confusing and conflicting information about sugar and how it should factor into the diet. Are some types of sugar healthier than others? Should all sugars, including fruit, be avoided? Will eliminating sugar help you resolve all your concerns? Will you lose weight? Will you clear up your skin? Will your sleep troubles be alleviated?
Read on to learn more about sugar so you can decide how (and whether!) to include it in your eating approach.
Let’s first familiarize ourselves with sugar. In their simplest form, sugars are carbohydrates composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are three main types of sugars: monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides. Monosaccharides are simple sugars. They include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose, and galactose. These sugars are the building blocks for more complex carbohydrates and occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, and dairy. Disaccharides are made up of two monosaccharides joined together. They include sucrose, maltose, and lactose. These sugars can be found in foods like table sugar, beer, and milk. Polysaccharides are made up of long chains of connecting monosaccharides. These are often referred to as complex carbohydrates and appear in various foods, including whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes.
Sugar and digestion
While the process begins in the mouth, the majority of sugar digestion happens in the intestine. When you eat a monosaccharide, your body uses it for energy almost immediately by absorbing it into the bloodstream. When you eat a disaccharide or polysaccharide, which are more complex, your body must break them down into monosaccharides (usually glucose) before using them for energy.
Once in the bloodstream, glucose can either be used immediately or stored in the body for later. If stored, the liver combines glucose molecules, creating a larger structure that can be broken down quickly when energy is needed. If the liver already has enough stored energy, the sugar gets converted to fat for long-term storage.
Blood sugar is sugar carried to cells in the bloodstream for energy. Blood sugar levels rise after consuming 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 rest, following exercise, and skipping meals.
The body works continuously to adjust and regulate blood sugar levels through hormone signalling. These levels are controlled by two primary hormones: insulin and glucagon. When blood sugar levels are too high, known as hyperglycemia, insulin is secreted by the pancreas to help clear sugar from the blood and move it to cells where it can be stored. When blood sugar levels are too low, known as hypoglycemia, glucagon is secreted to break down stored sugar and elevate blood sugar levels. 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 flavours 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 when food is scarce. Our 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.
Repeated excessive 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 cause cardiovascular disease.
- Increased likelihood of dental caries.
- Increased risk of asthma.
- Distorting the hunger and satiety hormones, causing overeating.
- Potential insulin resistance and higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Disrupting the gut microbiome and negative impact on immunity.
- Promoting inflammation, the 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 help us stay alert, too much sugar can spike blood sugar and lead to crashes. This spike and crash pattern may contribute to more significant health problems.
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 fibre, 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. They don’t usually offer the additional vitamins, minerals, and fibre that foods with natural sugars provide.
We find added sugars in foods like plant milk, cured meats (bacon, ham, turkey, prosciutto), condiments (mustard, ketchup, salad dressings, sauces), canned soups, cereals, bars, yoghurts, even protein bars.
Valuable tips to decrease sugar intake:
– Limit your coffee intake, which causes sugar cravings.
– Drink more water. Often sugar craving is a sign of dehydration.
– Eat naturally sweet vegetables and fruit to crowd out your sugar cravings.
– Avoid chemicalized, artificial sweeteners and added sugars and replace them with natural sweeteners such as agave syrup, stevia, brown rice syrup, maple syrup.
– Include movement in your life and stay active. By doing so, you balance sugar levels in your body, increase your energy, regulate your blood pressure, and alleviate your sugar cravings.
– Improve your sleep. It has been proved that when you have sleeping troubles, you tend to make the wrong eating choices by consuming foods that will give you an immediate and quick energy spike, such as sugar.
– Reduce animal protein. According to yin-yang principles, unbalanced diets (such as having too many animal proteins) create cravings.
– Avoid fat-free or low fat packaged snack food. These foods contain high quantities of sugar to compensate for lack of flavour and fat,
– Experiment with spices. Coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom will naturally sweeten your food and reduce cravings.
– Slow down and find sweetness in non-food ways! Cravings almost always have a psychological component. By identifying the underlying causes of food cravings and making lifestyle adjustments accordingly, you can find balance and take charge of your health. When life itself becomes sweet, excess sugar isn’t needed!
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