Sugar: Friend or Foe?

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If you are like me, you are finding yourself constantly barraged by information about your health, and particularly about your diet.  From mainstream media ads to social media posts to the one-liner that pops up in your news feed, we are always being inundated with nutrition info.  Personally, I have found that the vast majority deal with one item we all know and love – sugar.

So, what is the real deal?  In today’s post, I’m going to give you some tools to help you make an informed decision about what is right for you.  

We all have different metabolisms, and we will likely all react to nutrients differently.  However, there are some overarching themes, or “universal truths” when it comes to sugar and how our bodies react to increased sugar intake.  It has been well documented that the primary fuel for our brains is sugar (glucose).   However, the average American consumes 150 - 170 pounds of refined sugar a year (according to the USDA) - way more sugar than is necessary to keep the brain supplied in fuel.  So first of all, let’s look at what happens to that extra sugar, and what effect it has on the human body.

First, fructose (found in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup) signals your liver to store fat more efficiently, particularly around internal organs.  Over time, that fat can build up and cause a condition known as “fatty liver disease”, which could ultimately lead to liver failure.

Next, excess fructose can prime your body for diabetes.  A Public Library of Science(PLoS ONE) study found that an extra 150 calories from sugar (about 38 grams) per person per day increased the prevalence of diabetes by 1.1%.  A closely related consequence is that it will lead to increased levels of insulin circulating in your blood stream, which can over time cause your arterial walls to grow faster than normal according to The Smart Sugar Diet.  This can lead to high blood pressure, and ultimately put you at risk for a stroke or heart attack.  According to the American Heart Association, the recommended daily intake of sugar should not exceed 36 grams (or 9 teaspoons) for men and 6 teaspoons (or 25 grams) for women.

Unfortunately, many food processing companies will add sugar to their foods.  This “hidden” sugar not only entices us to eat more of the processed foods, but it adds to the negative effects mentioned above.  Sugar is most often added to canned fruits, fruit juices, certain canned vegetables and even some savory items like frozen dinners.

Finally, it is also well documented that sugar will increase your overall appetite and cause you to crave more sugar, as well as causing the infamous “sugar crash” we’ve all experienced at some point.

So what are we supposed to do about “brain food” and satisfying that occasional sweet tooth?  Well, fortunately, not all sugars are created equal.  There are other naturally occurring sweeteners and sugars that are not only far less harmful than fructose and refined “table sugar” and actually have some healthy benefits.  

STEVIA

Stevia is a natural substitute that is sugar and calorie free.  It does not raise blood sugar, and “is bio-active, so it could have some anti-inflammatory compounds, and can help you cut calories” according to a recent interview with Brian St. Pierre, a Registered Dietician and fitness/nutrition coach with Precision Nutrition.  However, there can be a minor aftertaste that can take a little getting used to.

HONEY

Honey is a blend of fructose and glucose that has been shown to have anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties.  High grade honey is more slowly digested, and is more of an actual food rather than a source of empty calories.  However, honey packs in a lot of calories, so we will need to stay active if consuming more honey.

MAPLE SYRUP

Good quality maple syrup has many health benefits.  It “contains numerous antioxidants, has a lower Glycemic Index than refined sugar, has anti-inflammatory properties, may help in fighting cancer, and supplies important vitamins and minerals” according to Dr Josh Axe, a certified Doctor of Natural Medicine and Clinical Nutritionist (www.draxe.com).  Also, maple syrup tastes really good!

COCONUT SUGAR/PALM SUGAR

Coconut sugar and palm sugar are very often confused.  While they are not the same, they are fairly similar.  They both have a slightly lower glycemic index than fructose.  Palm and coconut sugars are a little less inflammatory than fructose, but they have not been found to have the same health benefits as the previously mentioned sugars.  My personal opinion is that you can use these 2 sugars sparingly, but there are better alternatives.


So if love sugar, try to take a week using one of the above substitutes for it where you can and see how your body reacts.  You will be amazed at all the recipes that can be modified to replace refined sugar with one of the healthier alternatives.  

Hopefully I’ve been able to share some good info with you.  If you have questions or would like to discuss other nutrition or food topics please feel free to reach out to me anytime!

NutritionAngela Wingard