Sugar. Is it really as evil as they say it is? Then why, oh why, are sugar-laden foods oh-so-good to eat?
When you think of sugar, the first thing that likely comes to mind is that bag of sweet, white, sand-like granules stored in your kitchen — an essential ingredient in cookies, chocolates, cakes, and candy. But technically, sugar is much more than just that. Sugar is a general term used to describe a class of molecules we know as carbohydrates: glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, lactose, dextrose, and starch are all forms of sugar, found in all different types of food. High-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar (brown sugar), and honey are also types of sugars.
If sugar is a carbohydrate, then isn’t it an important component of my diet?
Carbohydrates are one of three necessary macronutrients that provide you calories. The other two are proteins and fats. Carbohydrates provide most of the energy your body uses to function, and sugar equals energy. Needless to say, it is an important part of one’s healthy diet.
Obviously, because sugar is found in a variety of food and drinks — and not just in candies and desserts — it is part of our natural, everyday diet and is something we cannot completely eliminate.
But why does sugar have such bad reputation when it comes to the topic of being healthy?
If you’ve got a sweet tooth like I do, you’re probably rebelling at the very idea that sugar is bad for you. But sugar does get a bad rap, and there’s good reason behind it. For one thing, the way that sugar affects our brain is different from how other food does. During her recent TEDtalk vlog, Dr. Nicole Avena, a researcher at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Florida College Of Medicine, said that the effect of sugar on the brain is similar to how drugs affect it — it can be highly addictive. This is due to the fact that a certain amount of dopamine is released whenever you consume food. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for the sensations of pleasure and pain, which is likely the reason why we take pleasure from celebrating with cake, and why you crave sweets whenever you’re depressed.
The natural instinct of the body when introduced to a new flavor is for dopamine to kick in, giving you a certain feeling of satisfaction. Dr. Avena refers to this as the ‘reward system’. Over time, as certain flavors become familiar, the dopamine spike dwindles, no longer giving you the same amount of pleasure. This is your body’s natural instinct kicking in to make sure you get a balanced meal, and not end up consuming the same types of food all the time.
However, when it comes to sugar, the effect is the complete opposite. The more sugar you eat, the more your body craves sugar — and this is what makes it unhealthy. We often hear that “in everything, moderation is key,” but with sugar, this is rather difficult to do, since your brain simply cannot tell when you’ve had enough of it.
Before you mistakenly conclude that all sugar is bad, period, let first touch on the differences between natural and processed or refined sugars. To better understand the nature of sugar and it’s effect on your body, let us delve into a bit of science for a moment.
Natural Sugars versus Refined “Added” Sugars
Natural sugars are what you call monosaccharides or simple sugars, meaning they cannot be broken down to make simpler forms of sugars. These are found in fruits (fructose) or in your dairy (lactose). These foods play an important role in your diet as they provide essential nutrients to keep you healthy. On the other hand, there are what you call refined sugars, such as the table sugar, which is a disaccharide (complex sugar) called sucrose. To come up with this form of sugar, there is an extraction and refinement process, which often involves bleaching and crystallization.
Refined sugar is among our added sugars, or what we often refer to as “the bad sugar”. They also come in the form of syrups that are added to food or to beverages when they are processed or prepared. They do not include naturally occurring sugars such as those in milk and fruits, and so, have no essential nutrients in them. These are sugars you find in your colas and sports drinks — and exactly the kind you should avoid.
Glucose and Fructose
There is also a type of sugar that is naturally found in every living cell on the planet. This is what we know as glucose. When glucose is absent in your diet, your body produces it. Any type of sugar consumed by the body is first broken down into two simple sugars, glucose and fructose, before it enters the bloodstream from the digestive tract. But unlike glucose, the body does not produce a significant amount of fructose as there is no physiological need for it.
Another reason why sugar in general is seen as something bad is because fructose can only be metabolized by the liver at a certain point, so too much sugar in the body can lead to serious health problems.
High fructose levels overload the liver, causing liver disease and insulin resistance. The role of insulin in the body is to help control blood glucose levels and convert it into energy that the body could use. When resistance to insulin develops, it can lead to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity — and obesity, in turn, often leads to heart disease.
Though at first glance, research in general appears to suggest that sugar must be avoided, consuming sugar also has benefits — and because there are so many types of sugar, there are lots of good sources of natural sugars that can satisfy our cravings.
The Benefits of Sugar in your Diet
While the role of sugar has been somewhat distorted by our fear of contracting metabolic disease, the fact remains that it is a natural part of our diet, and it does have its benefits. The most obvious benefit is that it gives you strength and energy. When you are in need of an instant energy boost, sugar is the most natural source.
Sugar can also be very helpful for people with low blood pressure, and is a natural remedy for depression. Ever wonder why eating a bar of chocolate puts you in such a good mood after? Oftentimes, we hear that diabetics should avoid sugar at all costs but, actually, the fluctuating sugar levels of a diabetic sometimes need a mouthful of sugar to balance things out, too.
Also, did you know that blackouts occur when sugar supply is cut off from your brain? Yes, your brain needs sugar too! Sugar even helps with good memory retention.
Sugar can and should be part of a healthy diet
Health experts say that totally eliminating sugar from your diet — if that were even possible — is certainly not advisable. It is essential only that we find out what are good sources of sugar are, and modify our consumption based on what we learn.
Good sources of natural sugars to satisfy and curb your cravings
Whole fruits. The most popular source of ‘healthy sugar’ is fruit. Oftentimes, you can substitute fruit for chocolate cake to satisfy your sweet tooth cravings.
The sugar in fruits is fructose — which we now know can cause metabolic issues in our bodies when consumed in great quantities. So how is that any better? The key is in how you consume the fruit. Whole fruits are healthy; fruit juice, maybe not as much.
Fruits have water, vitamins,minerals, and phytonutrients which add nutritional value when consumed, so it is not purely sugar. It also has fiber, which makes the process of digestion much slower, which in turn puts less stress on your liver. The fiber also makes fresh fruit more filling, and a filling meal with a small amount of calories can help keep you in better shape.
Veggies. Eating your vegetables may not seem like a good way to satisfy your sweet cravings. But vegetables contain sugar in them too — and these are the best source that actually give you that good mood and better memory. If you’ve become deeply addicted to the sweet flavor of sugar, more veggies in your diet can be a great way to wean you off and put your health back in balance.
Try natural substitutes. If something is bad, there is something much worse. If you need to go loco with your sweets, go loco with other natural sweetener options such as:
- Honey- has antibacterial properties and antioxidants
- Molasses– contains calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6
- maple syrup (not high-fructose syrup)- has calcium, zinc, and riboflavin content
- Stevia- is a calorie free sweetener that is said to be 100 times sweeter than your table sugar
- Coco sugar– has lower glycemic index compared to table sugar
A few more tips to consuming your sugar healthily
- Drinking your sugar is a bad idea. Remember how fruits are healthy as a whole, but not so much so when in the form of juice? Sugar in drinks is way too highly concentrated, and juice doesn’t leave you very full, so you tend to consume more of it.
- Replace refined sugar in your diet with natural sugars. As mentioned earlier, there are many other ways to make food sweet.
- Cut back on your intake. You may not want to hear this, but this point is really important — difficult, but not impossible. It’s not like you’re being told to stop eating sweets altogether, just less of them. When cutting back, make sure to always be kind to yourself. Maybe share your slice of cake instead of eating the whole thing by yourself?
Life is indeed much sweeter with sweets. And now you know that sugar is not your enemy unless you make it so, there is no reason you can’t eat healthy with a sweet tooth!