A huge thanks to Laura Baum RD, who helped me write this Learning Curve post!
For this Learning Curve, we’re looking at sugar. I get so many questions about it that I want to break down the latest research, theories, and recommendations for you all just to dispel the confusion. So, here we go!
What is Sugar?
We can’t talk about sugar without doing a shallow dive into its molecular basics.
When I talk about sugar, the word carbohydrate can also be used, as all carbohydrate foods, from wheat berries to lollipops, are broken down into sugar molecules. Sugar as we know it is a simple carb, not a complex one, like rice and pasta.
The basic building blocks of sugar are called monosaccharides – individual units, the simplest forms of sugar/carbohydrate structures.
Essentially, any word with an -ose ending – lactose, galactose, sucrose, etc. – is a sugar.
There are 3 monosaccharides: glucose, galactose, and fructose.
Within monosaccharides, the thing to note is that fructose is basically the ‘fruit sugar’ and is significantly sweeter than the other 2.
Glucose and galactose are absorbed and digested in the small intestine, whereas fructose is metabolized in the liver.
Is There a Difference Between Different Types of Sugar?
Let’s get right to the point: even though your body may process some sugars differently, in the end, it’s all the same to your body. So for example, when a product advertises that it’s made with maple syrup instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), that’s nothing but a cheap marketing ploy. Nothing about maple syrup is healthier than any other sugars. Truth.
There’s no convincing evidence (and here) that one sugar is worse than the others for our health. That being said, as a population, it’s common knowledge that we eat too much added sugars, and no one will dispute that.
As far as natural sugars, those are found mostly in milk and fruit. Unlike what some people will try to tell you, the sugars in these foods aren’t really what most of us need to worry about. For many people, too much fruit isn’t their issue (more people are unnecessarily afraid of fruit these days); it’s the added sugars in their diets.
But wait! I eat agave…isn’t that natural?
There are actually 56+ different names for sugar that appear on labels, not all with an -ose suffix. Molasses, rice syrup, caramel, maltodextrin, cane juice, honey, sugar, agave, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, and so many others. If you can add it to food, it counts as added sugar.
Sugar is sneaky, too: it hides in all sorts of processed and ultra-processed foods, even in things you’d never guess: Salad dressings. Fast food hamburgers. Deli meats. Breads. GAH!
There are minor differences within this added sugar category: Agave, honey and maple syrup are higher in fructose, so they may be sweeter. Agave syrup, which is touted as being ‘all natural’, actually has more fructose than HFCS. Isn’t that crazy? The ‘natural’ agave syrup that so many people think is super healthy is higher in fructose than the very ‘evil’ (that’s the perception) HFCS that everyone is trying to avoid.
Aren’t you glad I do these Learning Curve posts? There’s so much false info out there..along with the ‘natural is better’ myth. Sigh.
It’s easy to single out ‘sugary’ foods like milk or fruit and say that they’re too sweet, that’s totally shortsighted. We eat food, not its ingredients individually, so I want you to look at the food as a whole. Take fruit, for example. Yes, it’s sweet, but it has so many more redeeming qualities – fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins.
Sugar Addiction and the Carbohydrate-Insulin Theory
Some prominent and very vocal people believe that the more sugars and refined carbs we eat, the fatter we get. They believe that when we eat these foods, we get an insulin rush, which causes our bodies to hold on to fat. This fat causes insulin levels to remain high, which causes us to store fat and be continually hungry. The believers in this carbohydrate-insulin theory promote a low carb high fat diet for weight loss and to decrease insulin release due to carb consumption. They (will remain unnamed in this blog) believe that ‘sugars, grains, and starchy vegetables make you fat’.
Well! That’s a blanket statement if there ever was one. Not very scientific, I might add.
Anyhow, this theory is definitely contentious, with some high-profile docs (Love Dr. Sharma, FYI) and recent research debunking it. It’s true that insulin is released when we eat carbohydrate, and we know that high levels of circulating insulin are not good for us. High levels of insulin are generally thought to be caused by obesity, among other conditions.
But this theory? I’m not sold – especially on the part that the low carb high fat diet is the way to deal with all of this. And very recent research backs me up: the best diet is the one you can stick to. Low carb diets aren’t necessarily any better than any other diet out there (and here). Some people do great on low-carb diets, some people don’t.
If you’re someone who can tolerate a low carb high fat diet and feel that it would be beneficial, that’s good. But to say that everyone’s health – including but not limited to obese individuals – would be vastly improved on them is ridiculous. A lot of people find it impossible to follow such a restrictive diet, which can perpetuate their diet cycling and feelings of failure. Not okay. Plus, a lot of people can tolerate carbs just fine.
One of those people happens to be writing this blog post, so there you go.
The problem with all of this hypothesizing and theoretical stuff and dieting is that obesity, eating, food choices, weight loss, weight gain, sugar cravings, whatever…all of that is a lot more complex than just sugar – or food, for that matter. And telling someone who is struggling with their weight and compulsive sugar eating that they should cut out almost all sugar and carbs and eat mostly fat and protein ignores the whole side of ‘why are you eating all of this sugar in the first place’. We need to try our best not to oversimplify obesity and health into ‘just change your diet and you’ll be great’.
More often, there are underlying, non-food related issues that should be addressed. If you’re in this particular situation, please don’t let anyone convince you that all will be okay if you just change your diet. Get professional help to figure out what’s actually driving you to eat this way.
There are a lot of people out there who believe they’re ‘addicted’ to sugar.
Remember those researchers who claimed that ‘sugar is more addictive than cocaine’? The media had an absolute frenzy over that one, and it spawned several years of sugar fear mongering. The truth is that the review that this proclamation was based on was flawed, big time. First off, the scientists were citing rat studies. Second, those poor rodents they were allowed to have sugar only for a certain time period each day, and they were given pure sugar. Do you eat sugar out of the jar? Hopefully not. When you eat sugar, it’s usually combined with other things.
So even though the above review made sensational headlines, as usual there was more to the story.
In a review of the above, researchers claim that if rats would have had access to sugar as we do – whenever they want it – they wouldn’t have shown addiction-like behaviors. We also don’t usually consume sugar on its own, like the rodents in the study did.
The reward system in our brains may light up with both sugar and drugs, but according to researchers, drugs, not sugar, actually hijack this system and turn off natural controls.
Even though sugar may not be technically ‘addictive’, compulsive eating of sugar is certainly a real issue and one that has to be studied more. The experience of eating sugary foods is usually a positive one and can lead people to crave more. It’s also not very satiating, so it doesn’t tend to fill us up – especially when it’s present with other refined carbs and no protein/fat.
Sugar, when combined with fat, can elicit addiction-like behavior (but not consistent with drug addiction or drug cravings), according to this study.
The Sugar Industry
I wouldn’t be giving you guys the whole story if I didn’t mention here that research on sugar hasn’t been without controversy. Recently, the sugar industry has been exposed as having influenced past research (and here) in order to clear sugar and implicate fat in heart disease risk. Not cool at all, sugar people. They’ve also fought like hell to try to prevent the ‘added sugars’ line on the new US food labels (and lost) as well as soda taxes across the country. Apparently, ‘access to affordable groceries’ means keeping sugary beverages cheap as well. HM.
Your Health and Sugar
There are certainly health complications such as obesity, tooth decay, and heart disease that appear to result from high-sugar diets versus lower-sugar ones. Sugar may be linked to inflammation in the body. Excess calories and in particular excess sugars in our bodies are converted to triglycerides, which are fats which can accumulate in the liver and blood. High triglycerides are a precursor for fatty liver, heart disease, and stroke.
You’ll hear a lot of ‘sugar is toxic’ nonsense. Fear mongering has never gotten us anywhere. The dose makes the poison, and that’s all I have to say about that.
An association between sugar sweetened beverages like pop and sugary coffee drinks and obesity has also been found in multiple studies. Sugary drinks often cause weight gain because they’re easy to drink and more importantly, the body has trouble recognizing drinks as actual food. That means that once you throw down your PSL, your brain doesn’t register that you’ve just consumed 450 calories. Yikers. You then go on with your day, as though you didn’t take in those calories..and they end up being an ‘extra’, on top of everything else you eat and drink.
So what does this mean for us?
So…Is Sugar Bad For Us?
In short, too much sugar is a problem, but it’s far from being solely responsible for our health issues. As a population, we are eating more overall. We’re turning to convenience foods that are ultra processed, eating in restaurants far too often, and we’re less active. We’re also falling prey to the advice of people who are militant about food and ‘clean eating’ with zero sugar. All of that has an effect of our health.
My recommendations are pretty standard:
Don’t drink sugary crap.
There’s no need to ‘detox’ from sugar or cut it out altogether: just try to cut it down as much as possible. You’re not going to compromise your health if you have a moderate amount of sugar.
Please read labels/look up nutritionals online for the foods you eat most often. A lot of people don’t know that a muffin (aka ‘breakfast cake’) can have more than 40 grams of sugar (10 teaspoons). YIKES.
Eat mostly plants, with high-quality protein and some – not a ton – of minimally processed carbs.
When it comes to sweet, choose what you prefer, and use as little as possible. No sweetener is better than another.
Cook more at home. You can do it! Meals don’t have to be fancy. I have plenty of simple, healthy and healthy-ish recipes on my site.
Don’t go from diet to diet without fixing what’s really broken. Most of the time, that thing isn’t related to food at all. Speak to someone if you need to get to the bottom of things once and for all: I think knowing why you eat in a particular way/make certain food choices is more effective than any diet you could possibly put yourself on. Also: don’t fall victim to fear mongering people who call any food ‘toxic’. This is ridiculous and messed up. Food and eating are supposed to be enjoyable.
Hungry for More Nutrition Information?
Read this: Is Organic Food Better Than Convention Food?