You’ve heard that you should avoid sugar if you’re trying to lose weight, and I’m sure you remember learning in school that too much sugar causes cavities. Remember those plaque disclosing tablets?
And of course too much of anything is bad for you, right? Everything in moderation.
Watch your sugar intake and everything is good, or so we’re told.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. We live in a society that loves sugar. Trying to avoid it is like telling a fish it should avoid water. It’s almost impossible.
As a society we each consume about 130 pounds of sugar per year. That’s per person, not per family. In 1882 one person on average consumed 3 pounds of sugar per year.
So when someone tells you to cut back on sugar what does that mean? Cut back to 75 lbs a year? Take it down to 3 pounds per year? Or maybe stop eating it all together? Since the problem has grown gradually it’s hard to know what cut back means. It’s really hard to know how much is a healthy amount of sugar to consume.
Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page by defining what I mean by sugar.
What is sugar?
Like most foods these days it’s helpful to know which are naturally occurring sugars and which are completely man-made.
These are sugars that are monosaccharides, meaning they can not be broken down any more.
Glucose--This kind of sugar occurs in both plants and animals. You hear a lot about glucose when people talk about blood sugar. In humans diabetes occurs when the body is not able to regulate levels of glucose in the blood. This occurs because of a lack of insulin or an improper response to insulin. The crystalline form of glucose is called dextrose.
Fructose--Fructose, like the name implies, is found in a lot of fruit. It’s also found in foods like honey, flowers, berries and root vegetables. When you see the word fructose as part of an ingredient list it’s usually derived from sugarcane, sugar beets, and corn.
Galactose--Is found in mammals milk and helps make up lactose (see below)
These sugars are disaccharides, which means two simple sugars are joined together. Not to be confused with complex carbohydrates, which are polysaccharides and form a long chain structure of fiber and starch.
Sucrose--table sugar or white sugar. Sucrose is a compound with one molecule of glucose bonded to one molecule of fructose. This is what’s extracted from beet sugar or sugar cane and refined. Sucrose is not to be confused with sucralose which is commonly sold as Splenda.
Lactose--the sugar in dairy products and is commonly referred to as milk sugar. It consists of glucose and galactose (which is a simple milk sugar, see above).
Maltose--Maltose is obtained by letting grain germinate. It’s found in beer, cereal, pasta and other things derived from grain. It consists of two units of glucose joined together.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)-- is a mixture of glucose and fructose as single units or monosaccharides. This does not occur naturally, and is made of mostly GMO corn, which further complicates things.
Note: You could argue that some forms of sucrose belong in this section, because they are so heavily refined.
Why is sugar a problem?
1.Not sustainable--Sucrose is not a sustainable product in most parts of the world. Sugar cane only grows in certain locations and has to be heavily refined. Fruits are seasonal, and even things like cow’s milk is highly perishable unless fermented, and fermenting reduces and/or eliminates lactose. So consuming large amounts of sugar is a tax on the environment and does not promote a self reliant regional community.
2. Addictive--More and more studies are showing that sugar has some of the same effects/characteristics that other addictive substances have on us like alcohol and cocaine. (Source 1. Source 2. Source 3.)
3. Manufacturers put it in everything--There are a couple of reasons commercial food companies rely so heavily on sugar. One is that their customer base loves things that are sweet, because now the average American consumes 130 pounds of sugar a year (see above).
Second, we don’t fully understand how the human body digests food and stores fat, and even more we don’t fully understand why what works in one human being might not work in another. The field of nutrition, beyond basic malnourishment understanding, has been a guessing game up until recently. In the late 70s and early 80s fat was the enemy and was said to cause a lot of diseases. Now, we know that that’s not true; heck even eggs are back in a healthy diet.
To compensate for this misinformation manufacturers added extra sugar in food to make up for the lack of fat. So not only is there still a lot of misinformation out there even today, but the manufacturers are slow to change because customers are hooked on sugar and it is expensive to change recipes.
Also sugar helps increase the shelf life of certain products.
Some things that might have sugar in them that shouldn’t (and you would probably have never guessed that they do) are: bread, crackers, bagels, ketchup and other condiments, bottled sauces, salad dressings, sports drinks, yogurt with fruit, ready made meals, fruit juices and alcoholic drinks. (Source)
4. No nutrition--Sugar does not do anything for your body other than to give you fast energy. This kind of energy is only needed in extreme circumstances, like those associated with high performing athletes, and even those long held beliefs are beginning to be questioned and changed. Sugar is 100 percent carbohydrates and contains no vitamins, minerals or fatty acids.
5. It causes more than just obesity--We’ve already talked about cavities and obesity, but did you know sugar is also linked to a compromise immune system, brain fog, depression, lack of sleep, diabetes and fatty liver disease. (Source 1) (Source 2)
6. Artificial sweeteners are not the answer--Artificial sweeteners have been linked to cancer, headaches, mood disorders and more. (Source)
You might say what the heck, I’ll risk it if it means I don’t have to be fat or I can keep my teeth. The problem goes deeper, though. If you consume artificial sweeteners you’re training your palate to like only the sweetest food. Then, even worse, you crave that super sweet food. So no matter how much willpower you have you’re at higher risk of re-gaining any weight back that you’ve lost (or undoing any good the artificial sweeteners have done).
7. Some sugars are worse than others
High fructose corn syrup has become the evil ingredient as of late, and with good cause. Because it’s sweeter and therefore is even more addictive than sucrose, and a completely manufactured food made with GMOs, it’s not something you want to eat. High fructose corn syrup is also known as glucose-fructose, isoglucose and glucose-fructose syrup.
What about other sugars like raw sugar or honey?
The best kind of sugar to consume is the sugar in fruit, with the fruit. In other words, satisfy your sweet tooth with a piece of fruit because you’re getting a lot of nutrients and fiber along with the sugar. Although too much fruit can lead to other problems, so eating fruit in moderation is healthy. Eating only fruit or an abnormal amount of fruit is not.
Eating raw sugar is better than white sugar because it has some trace minerals. Eating honey instead of raw sugar is better because honey has some medicinal properties. You can see where I’m going here--in general high levels of any kind of sugar is not healthy, however, if you’re going to eat sugar there are some healthier choices than white sugar.
So what to do?
The first thing to do is to look around and start adding up how much sugar you consume. Wade through the acronyms, synonyms and “fake” words and figure out how much sugar you’re consuming per day.
Look For Ways To Cut Back
Try to purchase or make food that does not contain sugar. At least those that really don’t need sugar like salad dressing. If you have to make something sweet try stevia or using half the sugar required.
Question Your Health
Even if you feel ok, question why you don’t feel great. Chronic conditions don’t just happen, they are gradual. Take time to reflect on why you just feel ok or have been feeling bad lately. Be a detective and try to get to the root of the problem. Then take steps to correct it.