What's the Big Deal about Sugar
Is sugar really that bad for us?
Should we cut carbs?
How much sugar can we eat?
In the ongoing debate about carbs and sugar, it is helpful to understand the difference between carb sources - broccoli vs ice cream - so we can make informed choices.
Always, for my clients and myself, the goal is health and feeling great and being able to do all the things we want to do, so it makes sense that we understand how eating certain foods supports those goals while other foods throw roadblocks (and serious ones) in our path.
The Role of Sugar
When you eat sugar, it causes a rise in blood sugar and a small amount is stored in your muscles and liver. That sugar can then be used as energy to do things like hard work or exercise, and even support the functions you need to stay alive like breathing and your heart beating.
Whatever excess sugar is not used is turned into triglycerides and stored as fat. That's where the problem comes in.
Exercising muscles pull sugar from the bloodstream. Inactive muscles do not.
If you use the sugar to power a workout, it gets put to good use. The harder or longer you exercise - think HiiT workouts, running long distances, etc - the more sugar your muscles take from your bloodstream.
If you do not use the sugar you consumed, the excess sugar gets stored as fat, to potentially be used later for energy.
Excess sugar day after day is what leads to fat gain, and contributes to the development of degenerative diseases.
Are All Carbs Created Equal?
And this is the most important thing to understand.
All carbohydrates are made up of chains of sugar molecules.
But carbohydrates can be a single sugar, or two, three or more sugars bound together, or even millions of sugars bound together. And therein lies the difference in blood sugar and fat storage.
Only single sugars can pass into your bloodstream, so the sugars that are bound by two or more molecules must be broken down to be used. If they cannot be broken down, they pass through and cannot be absorbed.
Also known as simple sugars.
Some single sugars we consume:
- table sugar (the kind you sprinkle onto foods, and also what you find added to foods like soda, cookies, etc)
- high-fructose corn syrup
- fruit juice
- ice cream
- sugary cereals
These sugars don't need to be broken down. They're ready to be absorbed and they are, quickly and easily. They cause a steep spike in blood sugar.
Repeated steep spikes lead to insulin resistance.
Eat simple sugars sparingly.
Starches are thousands of sugar molecules bound together, foods like:
- bread made with refined grains
Refined grains is the term you'll be most interested in. These foods can indeed have valuable nutrients like calcium, iron and B vitamins, but when they're refined, they're easier for your body to break down into single sugar molecules and therefore get absorbed more easily and quickly into your bloodstream.
Limit starches to 1-3 portions per day.
Millions of sugars bound together so tightly that they cannot be broken down are called fiber.
Fiber is in:
- whole grains that have not been refined
- the skin of potatoes
- brown rice
- whole oats
- beans and lentils
Fiber keeps the sugars from being absorbed and spiking your bloodstream.
Instead, it travels to your intestines where bacteria turns it into a beneficial ingredient for digestive health, and most of it is passed as stool.
Aim to eat 25-50 grams of fiber per day.
Forms of Processed Sugar
There are many ways we take whole foods and refine them.
We do it when we cook foods. Cooking breaks down the sugars, turning them into easily-absorbed molecules.
We do it when we juice fruits and vegetables, removing the fiber that slows or eliminates the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream.
Food manufacturers do it when they grind whole grains into flour, removing the skins, husks, and outer shells, taking healthy foods and turning them into ones that we need to limit.
Food and drink manufacturers do it when they add already refined ingredients to their products, adding sugar to almost everything you can buy that comes in a can, bag, or box.
It's nearly impossible to avoid unless we eat mostly whole foods make all meals from scratch.
What Sugars Should We Eat?
I like to break it down to this simple example.
Take an apple, and think of this continuum:
Focus mostly on consuming fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in their natural whole form, skins and husks intact.
Eat refined carbs sparingly, and avoid foods that are promoted as healthy but spike your blood sugar like fruit juice, yogurt with added sugar, and energy drinks.
If you are diabetic or pre-diabetic, are at high risk for serious illness and disease, or you are looking to lose fat, avoiding simple sugars and excess starches is especially important.
See simple sugared foods as occasional treats, enjoy the hell out of them when you eat them, take your time and savor the experience.
Sometimes seeing those foods as the occasional indulgence can make the experience seem extra special.