If sugar is on your health radar, you’re not alone. Many are drawn to its sweet taste like a bee to honey. Whether you’re concerned about weight or simply want to eat a more healthful diet, it can be hard to reconcile public health recommendations to limit sugar with trending advice and your desire for its sweet taste. Be informed by reading about sugar’s sweet facts – learn what they are, how to spot them, and how to enjoy their sweet taste while supporting your health.
Sugars are simple carbohydrates, also known as simple sugars. They’re naturally found in fruits and dairy, but the vast majority of dietary sugars come from the many forms of added sugars.
Sugars—At the molecular level
Sugars are classified as having a single molecule (monosaccharides) or two molecules (disaccharides). With the help of digestive enzymes, all sugars break down into single molecules (monosaccharides) before entering your blood stream.
Maltose (glucose + glucose)
Sucrose (glucose + fructose)
Lactose (glucose + galactose)
Do the following sugars sound familiar?
- Sucrose includes the granulated white table sugar our taste buds tend to love.
- Lactose is the sugar in milk many people lack the enzyme to digest properly – aka:lactose intolerance.
- Fructose is found naturally in fruit and honey. Commercially, it’s derived from sugar cane, sugar beets or corn.
Did you know? Glucose is the primary and preferred source of fuel for the brain.
Sugars and your health
Your body doesn’t require extra sugar beyond what you eat naturally in nutrient dense foods like fruit and dairy. Naturally occurring sugars provide energy (calories) and are delivered with other beneficial elements, such as fiber, protein, fats, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
Added sugars provide energy and flavor to many foods and beverages. When enjoyed mindfully as part of a varied diet, sugar-sweetened foods can provide playful sensory satisfaction aligned with health. However, any food regularly consumed in quantities inconsistent with the energy and nutrient needs of the body is not healthful.
Is sugar addictive?
Food (including sugar) is not an addictive substance—but when used as a coping tool, food can feel addictive. It’s beneficial to seek help from a HAES® informed professional when eating behaviors risk physical, mental and emotional health.
Do you have an appetite for sugar?
Sugar’s sweetness can add satisfaction to a healthful diet. How do you prevent your sweet tooth from taking over? Avoid depriving yourself of calories (aka: dieting), including sugar.
Here’s why… Dieting involves a period of calorie deprivation, typically involving restrictions on sweets. Your body will physiologically resist weight loss and your craving for sweet food and other forbidden foods will eventually intensify to the point of diet backlash.
Alternatively, the practice of Intuitive Eating integrates physical needs with cognitive and emotional awareness. Intuitive eaters respond to physical hunger and fullness cues to regulate energy needs, choose foods that sustain an overall feeling of wellbeing, and include foods that satisfy taste.
Understanding sugar on labels
The Nutrition Facts Label on packaged foods shows the Total Sugar (added + naturally occurring) per serving, listed under Total Carbohydrates. After year 2021, labels will also include the amount of Added Sugars per serving.
To make sense of how much sugar is in a serving, simply divide the number of sugar grams per serving by 4 to get the teaspoon equivalent.
On ingredient lists, Added Sugars can appear under many different names.
Does my body care about the sugar source?
Some sugars may taste better to your tongue, but your body won’t know the difference between white refined sugar, sugar in the raw, or maple syrup since they all contain nearly equal portions of the simple sugars glucose and fructose. All sugar is various combinations of simple sugars.
It’s helpful to know about types of sugar substitutes and how to spot them. Basically, they taste sweet and contain fewer calories than sugar, or offer zero calories.
Types of sugar substitutes:
- Artificial sweeteners are produced synthetically, are intensely sweet, and because of the small amount used they essentially contain no calories, though fillers may contribute a very small number of calories.
Examples: Sucralose, Aspartame, Saccharin, Acesulfame-K, Advantame, Neotame
- Natural sweeteners are derived from natural sources, are intensely sweet, and because of the small amount used they essentially contain no calories.
Examples: stevia leaf extract and monk fruit extract
- Sugar Alcohols, also known as polyols, taste sweet but have fewer calories than sugar. Some occur naturally in plants but are usually manufactured for use in food. They are neither sugars nor alcohols.
Examples: Sorbitol, Erythritol, Xylitol, Lactitol, Mannitol
Significant amounts of sugar alcohols (except Erythritol) can cause intestinal gas, loose stools and/or diarrhea. Erythritol, when consumed in very large quantities may cause nausea.
What makes some carbohydrates complex?
The terms simple and complex carbohydrates are often familiar, but the differences may not be well understood. In a nutshell, simple sugars are easily (rapidly) digested carbohydrates whereas complex carbohydrates are not as easily (or rapidly) digested, or not digested at all.
Types of complex carbohydrates:
- Starch is made up of long chains of molecules that, when digested, enter the bloodstream as glucose. Because it takes longer to break down the many chemical bonds in starch, it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as rapidly as most simple sugars.
- Fiber passes through us, indigested, because we don’t have the enzymes to break the chemical bonds.
- Glycogen is simply long chains of glucose molecules in our own muscles and liver. It’s our body’s way of storing energy for our muscles and brain.
Knowing sugar basics will help you weed out claims and beliefs that aren’t based in science. Learning to enjoy sugar without guilt or judgement while supporting your health is best achieved through Intuitive Eating—a mind-body practice supporting authentic health at a natural weight for your body.