By Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN
So what’s the deal with sugar? The deal is it tastes good, right? Wrong. Well, right but... here is the real, more important deal. Before you were even born, your body was hard-wired to love sugar. Scientists agree that babies are born with an instinctive preference for sweets, thanks to an evolutionary adaptation for survival. In prehistoric times, sugar implied calories — our ancestors learned to seek out foods that tasted sweet, knowing that they were a guaranteed source of energy.
In today’s world, which is teeming with sweets, and overrun with added sugar in everything from yogurt to crackers, our old-fashioned biology is at war with our modern food culture. The price we pay? Our waistlines, disease, and our overall wellness are affected, but we can arm ourselves with a little info and a lot of healthy choices.
What are the effects on your body?
All carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules, sucrose, fructose, glucose, lactose. If you see an -ose at the end, it’s likely sugar. When you eat fruit, starches, dairy, or anything with carbohydrate, it gets broken down into a sugar molecule. That sugar molecule, with the help of the hormone insulin, gets put into cells and used for energy. Your body responds:
● Your brain only uses sugar — not fat or protein — for energy. So some carbohydrates in your diet are essential. Don’t lump carbohydrates found in fruit, whole grains, and starchy vegetables into the same group as sugar from jelly beans, cake, and cookies.
● Sugar has no vitamins, minerals, fiber, or nutritional value, and too much gets stored as, you guessed it, fat.
● Sugar promotes belly fat, heart disease, proliferation of cancer cells, liver toxicity, and earlier mortality.
● Too much sugar is hard on brain cells and interferes with mood, cognition, sleep, and energy.
● Because it is hiding in so many places, on average, we eat 300-400 calories worth of refined sugar daily — the equivalent of 31-41 pounds per year!
What happens when you eat sugar?
There’s been a lot of buzz in the news about sugar being a “toxic” substance that people abuse. We’re still arguing the nuances of sugar addiction versus dependence, and while we can’t conclude that food is as dangerous as alcohol or drugs, researchers agree that high sugar foods can stimulate the brain in the same way drugs do, inducing behaviors that resemble addiction. The sugar “highs” and “lows” you experience are consistent with sugar “dependency.” Dependency is defined as a relationship between conditions. In this case, your body gets accustomed to being fueled with a high level of sugar, so when you consume less, you feel out of sorts — which causes you to return to the vending machine. This dependency is problematic because changes in blood sugar can disrupt sleep, cause increased consumption of calories, and lead to fatigue.
Whether sugar is an addiction or a dependency, overconsumption of refined sugar can promote obesity and other weight-related problems such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and coronary artery disease.
How do sugars compare?
Your body doesn’t need processed sugar, but it does need the sugar that comes from breaking down whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables. Instead of shunning sugar altogether, avoid foods with added sugars. These foods have fewer vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and/or fiber — all of the most nutritious parts!
From a nutrition standpoint, added sugar is added sugar (almost). For example, while honey, coconut sugar, and turbinado sugar may have traces of nutrients and a slight advantage over the refined white stuff, they are almost entirely empty calories.
There are environmental benefits to choosing less processed and refined sugars, such as honey, sugar in the raw, and turbinado sugar, which may also influence what to put on your pantry shelf.
When refined or added sugars are listed among the first few ingredients, you know the product is likely to be high in sugar.
Look for total grams of sugar (listed under “Total Carbohydrate”)
● A product is high in sugar if it contains more than 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams
● A product is low in sugar if it contains less than or equal to 5 grams of sugar per 100 grams
● Expect that foods such as dried fruit and whole grains may be considered high in sugar, but the sugar comes in a healthful and nutrient-dense form (assuming no added sugar!). These foods can still be incorporated into a healthy diet.
● Aim to consume as little added sugar as possible. There is no nutritional need for added sugar.
Sugar can be listed on a label in any of these forms:
Agave nectar, Honey, Brown sugar, Hydrolyzed starch, Cane sugar/Evaporated cane juice, Invert sugar, Concentrated fruit juice sweetener, Lactose (“milk sugar”), Confectioner’s sugar, Levulose, Corn syrup, Maltose, Corn sweeteners, Maple sugar, Dextrose, Molasses, Fructose (“fruit sugar”), Powdered sugar, Galactose, Raw sugar, Glucose, Sucrose (“table sugar”), Granulated sugar, Table sugar, High fructose corn syrup, Turbinado
So, back to the deal with sugar. Yes, it tastes good. Save those tasty good bites for very specific conscious indulgences.
Keri Glassman is the founder and president of Keri Glassman, Nutritious Life, a nutrition practice in New York City, as well as The Nutrition School, a 12-week online course created to provide an unprecedented nutrition education and a springboard for building a successful career as a nutritionist. She is on the advisory board for Yahoo Health, is a contributing editor and advisory board member for Women’s Health Magazine, the Health and Wellness partner for JW Marriott hotels, and contributes monthly to Livestrong.com and Foodnetwork.com.
Keri was Lead Nutritionist for Turner’s health and wellness entertainment brand, Upwave, and the Nutritionist and Judge on the healthy cooking competition show, “Cook Your Ass Off.” She has authored four books, including The New You, Improved Diet, and The O2 Diet. Keri is regularly featured on national television programs including The Today Show, Good Morning America, and Access Hollywood Live. She is a spokesperson for national brands that align with the Nutritious Life mission, and is a prolific writer and commentator for many media outlets. Keri resides in New York City with her children, Rex and Maizy.