How sweet it is: the truth about sugar

Sugar is currently associated with weight gain and a host of health issues. Time to take a dose of science for the truth about sugar.

Various sugary simple carbohydrate  products

Oh how sweet it is to indulge in some sugar-packed snacks. The engrained and enjoyable human preference for sugar has previously served to help keep us alive. But with modern food manufacturing, this simple carbohydrate is currently associated with weight gain, inflammation and a host of health issues. Time to take a spoonful dose of science and taste the truth about sugar.

What exactly is sugar?

Sugar is a simple form of carbohydrate, which is a macronutrient. Natural sugars are the ones found in whole foods such as fruit (fructose) and dairy products (lactose). Fruit contains fiber and dairy contains protein and fat which help slow how fast the sugar reaches our bloodstream. It's better to delay absorption in order to prevent blood sugar spikes (1).  

Refined sugar is extracted and purified from sugar cane or sugar beet (2). It’s typically found as sucrose (combination of glucose and fructose). This process results in the familiar white granules or syrups that are added to our common foods and drinks such as soda, cereal, baked goods, and candy. 

Food manufacturers also chemically create sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup to sneak into beverages and common foods. The problem with these highly processed foods is that they have little nutritional value and have been linked to weight gain and disease when eaten in excess (3). 

The carbohydrates we eat from foods such as grains, fruits, legumes (beans, peas, lentils) and vegetables get broken down into a simple form called glucose. Glucose is our brain and muscles’ preferred source of energy. The brain uses about 20% of the glucose in our bodies (4). 

Maintaining glucose levels within a normal range is important for keeping your body functioning and healthy. When we don’t get enough carbohydrates from foods or during times of exercise, our body will convert glucose from protein or fat stores. 

Is sugar dangerous?

Our bodies digest and absorb refined sugar very differently than whole food sources. The fiber and nutrients in whole foods help slow the absorption, resulting in more balanced “hills” of blood sugar and energy levels throughout the day. 

When we consume sugar-rich foods, especially on an empty stomach, it can cause drastic peaks and valleys. In the short term, we can feel tired and crave more sweets. In the long-term it can increase the risk of diabetes and other blood sugar related conditions. 

More research is coming out on how an excessive intake of added refined sugar can have an impact on weight gain and these related diseases:

  • Inflammation: dietary sugar intake, especially from beverages, can increase inflammation in the body. Excess inflammation is associated with disease, low mood, and pain (5). 
  • Tooth decay: sugars in the diet are a main factor that contributes to dental caries or cavities. These develop when bacteria in the mouth eat sugar and produce acid that breaks down teeth (6).
  • Heart disease: eating a diet high in sugar for even a few weeks has been shown to cause problems in people with heart disease such as higher total cholesterol and triglycerides (7). 
  • Diabetes: sugar consumption will not directly cause diabetes. However excess refined sugars overtime can potentially lead to difficulty balancing blood sugar which is related to diabetes. 
  • Neurodegenerative disease: high-sugar diets can lead to brain impairment which can increase the risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s. This is usually when there is another condition such as diabetes (8). 

However, if you eat sugary foods in moderation once in a while they will not cause you any harm.

How much is too much?

The average American eats about 20 teaspoons of sugar every day, while the American Heart Association recommends only 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men each day (9). Especially if you’re prone to one of the above conditions, it’s a good idea to watch your sugar intake. 

Added sugar can be hiding in many surprising foods. Unfortunately, we can’t always easily tell when a food has natural or added sugar. Food manufacturers are not currently required to list added sugar separately on the food label. To spot the added sugar, check out the ingredient list. 

Curb the craving

If you’re hooked on the sweet stuff, and concerned about weight gain or have a family history disease, you may want to consider cutting back. Consider your personal diet preference and whether its best to go cold turkey with a sugar detox, or slow and steady with these tips:

  • Substitute sodas, sweetened drinks, and juice for bubble water with a squeeze of lemon or lime, tea, or plain coffee (in moderation). 
  • Focus on wholesome healthy meals first. Try to include a source of protein and pair it with some fruit for some natural sweetness. For instance plain yogurt with fresh berries.
  • Avoid certain triggers. Keep the sweets out of sight or even better, don’t buy them. If you can’t help yourself from stopping at the bakery, try to go another direction. 

Meet your sweets 

Getting sugar from natural sources such as fruit, requires chewing and digesting, helping to moderate the total amount you consume. Easily cut your sugar consumption by making your own naturally sweetened snacks such as this sweet and spicy gem:

Fluffy pumpkin and pecan treats

Download Lifesum to check out more amazing recipes such as Gluten free brownie muffins. Yum-o!

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