Sugar: to eat or not to eat?
It’s a common dilemma. Excess sugar consumption over last decades has made this substance our number one health enemy. Even if you don’t eat sweets, you are probably exposed to more sugar than you realize. There is also some confusion around sugars. Some say sugars are healthy, others that they are not. Some say we need them whereas others say we don’t. Sugar substances have many faces as they come in natural and artificial forms. Apart from shared sweetness they may have various properties such as calorie high and calorie free. Sugar substances can also exert various effects on our body including blood glucose swings, inflammation, dysregulation of hormonal system and gut microbiome. Their effect is also dose-dependent and sugar type-dependent.
Sugars belong to carbohydrates, compounds constructed from carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Carbohydrates comprise of simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs often refer mostly to sugars and act as quick-burning fuels because they elevate blood sugar quickly and therefore you want to eat less of this type. Complex quality carbs are broken down in a steadier manner with a less dramatic effect on blood sugar, and therefore considered a better choice.
I am not extreme to the point where we all need to be a on a sugar-free regimen. My goal is rather to educate so you avoid Excess Sugars, unhealthy sugars, have overall healthy carbs and feel guilt-free if you have a cake once in a while. It’s all about balance and moderation. To my opinion, more than exclusion of certain macronutrients like carbs – is a skill of balancing macronutrients and having the right proportions on your plate.
Sugar reality check
To give an example, 1 teaspoon of table sugar equals about 4 grams of sugar. Some popular “health” foods such as fruit yoghurts typically contain 3 - 8 teaspoons of sugar, granola between 3 – 6 teaspoons, protein bars between 3 to 6 teaspoons, orange juice between 4 to 6 teaspoons, and the list goes on.
Now, if you have what’s commonly considered a “healthy” breakfast consisting of fruit yoghurt with granola, a french toast and a glass of orange juice, guess what? You are set for a morning sugar bomb, 15 – 30 teaspoons of sugar (60 – 120 grams) to start a day!
Now, let’s look at how much glucose circulates in your bloodstream, do you know? There is about 8 grams of glucose (2 teaspoons) circulating in your bloodstream. So, what happens with all the sugar if you consume 60 – 120 grams of it for breakfast only? You wish it disappears, right? But it does not. It needs to be burned off or stored. There is however only a certain amount you can burn, the rest will be stored: first as glycogen in your liver and muscles and then, all over the body as fat. Moreover, excess sugar wreaks havoc your health, your hormones get out of balance, your cardiovascular system and various tissues get inflamed, your gut health gets under fire, your sleep is disrupted, your brain outperforms.
RED FLAGS: worth to realize is that when you frequently FEEL MORE TIRED, or MORE ENERGETIC (or both at times) after your meals, it suggests that your blood sugar is imbalanced. In the past, oftentimes after my meals (with plenty of pasta, rice or potatoes and little veggies) I had a dip and felt like going to bed or I was having sugar cravings. I did not know why, now I know it was due to a blood sugar imbalance. Right now, I do not experience that because I pay attention to what I eat and to the proportions of different food groups. My blood sugar is stable and energy steady throughout the day, simply by balancing the proportions. If I could change it, so you do!
As with many substances, small quantities can be quite safe whereas large quantities lethal, think of alcohol, drugs, medicines, certain foods and herbs. It’s quite similar with sugar too. Sugar is toxic at the certain dose. It’s not a secret that long-term excess sugar consumption is killing us slowly. Be sugar smart and mind your sugar dose!
Tip: If you want to stay on a save side, reduce your sugar intake to minimum. Stay away from any foods and drinks with over 4-6 grams of sugar per serving and any foods & drinks listing sugar (including all fancy sugar names) as one of the first 3 ingredients on food and drink labels.
Also, don’t get tricked by thinking that:
- Coconut sugar or date sugar is a healthy alternative to high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar. It may sound healthy but your body will recognize it and process it as sugar.
- Sugar is just empty calories so it’s ok – no, it’s more than that. Excess sugar causes inflammation, insulin resistance, diabetes, heart problems, hormonal issues, GI issues, cancer.
- Replacing sugary drinks with “diet” or “sugar free” drinks is a better alternative. Both are harmful for you.
The bitter-sweetness of Artificial Sweeteners
The food industry, in order to find a “solution” to side effects such as risk of insulin resistance and diabetes of sugar consumption due to its high glycemic index, high glycemic load and high calorie load, came up with what might seem like a “magic” answer – artificial sweeteners. You may have heard of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and acesulfame. Artificial sweeteners brought to the table the sweetness, stable blood glucose levels and few or no calories. What else can you ask for, one might think? Seems like a perfect solution. Yet, not quite. They are often hidden in “sugar free” - “diet” drinks. There are studies showing that the frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, can disrupt the gut microbiome and promote glucose intolerance. On the top of it, intake of artificial sweeteners tricks our brain to consume even more by dysregulating hunger and satiety feeling. When you drink a calorie free “diet coke” which is sweet, your brain will be confused as to why this “sweet drink” is calorie free. In nature, our physiology is trained to associate sweet foods and drinks with calories. So what may happen when it’s sweet but contains no or little calories – our body may ask for more sweets and drinks to correct this imbalance! It’s a dangerous zone. Cutting calories in this way might create a vicious cycle, is harmful and still keeps you hooked by sweetness. Artificial sweeteners and sugar make you crave sweetness, they alter your brain chemistry and metabolism.
Remember: if you are craving sweet foods and drinks – it indicates your blood sugar is off balance.
“Free Sugars” trap
You probably came across a term “FREE SUGARS” and you might be confused as to what exactly it refers to. Free sugars refer to any sugars added to a food. It includes natural and industrial sugars and the “free sugars” list is quite long. The common ones include table sugar, glucose-fructose corn syrup, agave, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, date sugar, glucose, grape sugar, fruit juice, caramel, carob syrup, coconut sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, dextran, maltose. Your body does not need these free sugars to be added to your foods and the industry adds it to most foods and drinks they manufacture. We are being chronically overdosed with free sugars. In the pre-agriculture times sugar wasn’t common, people ate it seasonally and occasionally from fruits and honey.
Watch out for sugar alcohols
Sugar alcohols are sweet and are naturally present in fruits and vegetables. It inspired the food industry to use them as sweeteners. They are added to sweets, confectionary products, chewing gums, medicines, dietary supplements, and tooth pastes. They have different chemical structure than sugars and they are usually less sweet than artificial sweeteners. Similarly to artificial sweeteners they don’t influence blood glucose levels but they have calories, only less than sugar. They became quite popular and are commonly recommended instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners. The most common sugar alcohols include mannitol, xylitol, sorbitol, maltitol. You can easily spot them by reading food labels because their names end with suffix “-ol”. Commonly one of the problems with sugar alcohols is that we don’t absorb them very well (except erythritol). As a result, they can cause gastrointestinal discomfort including diarrhea, flatulence, and bloating. Sugar alcohols can be partly metabolized by your gut microbes, so if eaten in excess they can alter your gut microbiome. Again and again, because they are sweet – they keep you craving sweetness and sugar. If you consume them in quantities as present in real foods such as in fruits and vegetables you probably will not have any problems. If you consume unnatural quantities however, by adding few spoons of xylitol to your every drink or food, your body will protest and manifest it one way or the other. The best is to keep sugar alcohols consumption to minimum.
Let’s give a little bit attention to stevia, it became quite popular as a sugar substitute over past years. Stevia corresponds to Stevia rebaudiana plant which contains steviol glycosides (Rebaudioside A) responsible for the sweet taste. Steviol glycosides derived from stevia are naturally low in calories and do not raise blood sugar levels when consumed. There is however some controversy and probable safety issues around the use of stevia plant extracts, high-quality purified steviol glycosides (Rebaudioside A) are considered generally safe for use in food. If you use stevia, make sure you know what you buy and use as “stevia”: plant extract or purified steviol glycosides and always use it sparingly.
How our body reacts to carbohydrates?
One of the main reasons, sugars gained so much negative attention is because they can mass up with our blood glucose levels, oftentimes consequently leading to insulin resistance and diabetes type 2. It happens when we over consume sugars. Our body constantly thrives to maintain normal blood glucose concentration by removing glucose from the blood (for example after sugar ingestion) or by returning glucose to the blood (when blood glucose level is too low) from cells and tissues. What we eat, at what quantity and how often can impact blood glucose levels. Simple sugars like glucose and complex sugars like starches which are easily digestible to glucose, can impact blood glucose levels the most. Insulin is responsible than for lowering the blood glucose levels, it drives the cellular uptake of glucose so if you eat a lot glucose and/or starch your body will produce more insulin accordingly, at least at the beginning. Long term overconsumption of foods rich in glucose and starch can alter your hormones and disrupt many physiological processes resulting in health problems including insulin resistance, inflammation, weight gain, depression, dementia, cancer, skin issues to name a few. This vicious sugar cycle makes you crave even more sugar.
Did you know that (white) bread, rice, pastas, corn flakes and flour-based products are rich in starch? To know what effect certain foods, have on our blood glucose levels, scientists came up with the terms of glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL). Glycemic index tells you how ingested carbohydrates (from various foods) impact your blood glucose levels, which may be influenced by your capability to digest and absorb (glycemic response to the food). For example, high-GI foods (white bread, mashed potatoes) that are rapidly digested and absorbed cause a quick raise in blood glucose levels whereas low-GI foods (leafy greens) which are not rapidly digested and absorbed will cause a much lower peak in blood glucose levels, keeping it stable. Glycemic load considers the quantity and the quality of the carbohydrate in a food, it is the glycemic index times the grams of carbohydrates on a given amount of the food. Therefore, one food’s GI and GL can differ as in case of carrots. The carbohydrates in carrots have a high GI score however carrots have a low GL factor because they don’t contain many carbs per serving.
TIP: I recommend eating healthy starches such as starches from legumes, root vegetables, quinoa, buckwheat, potatoes, oats or brown rice. You just don’t want to overeat them, typically try to keep them around ¼ - 1/3 portion of your main meals, and have plenty of veggies, adequate protein and healthy fats next to it. The effect of these carbs (eaten in moderation) on your blood sugar will be minimal as long as there is fiber, protein and fat as well.
How to go around sugars and carbs?
- Avoid excess sugars (simple carbs)
- Have complex carbs (veggies, legumes, whole grains) over simple carbs (natural and artificial sugars, fruit, honey, syrups, table sugar, juices)
- In particular avoid added sugar (free sugar) – it is a real health trouble maker and if you pay attention to what you buy you can quite easily do it
- Read labels if you purchase pre-packed products
- If you want some sweetness, get sugar from natural food sources like fruits and honey (alternatively stevia, or erythritol, or xylitol), in moderation of course
- Carbs are best when they come from vegetables, fruits, intact whole grains and beans.
- Break the vicious cycle of sweetness, the more sweetness you eat the more you crave = the more your blood sugar is imbalanced. Break the cycle by introducing more healthy foods.
- Keep our blood sugar stable by having the right proportions on our plate. For example, you can simply combine following to prepare a balanced lunch and dinner: non starchy veggies (about 40-60% by volume) + Protein source (about 15-25% by volume) + Healthy Fat (about 10- 25% by volume) + Healthy starches (about 10-20% by volume) + herbs and spices.
- Red flags: if you frequently feel more tired, or more energetic after your meals, it suggests that your blood sugar is imbalanced. Are you Feeling more tired/sleepy/brain fog after eating? If yes, you probably had too many carbs such as starches, sugar in your meal. Reduce carbs, have more veggies and see how you feel after your next meal. Are you Feeling more energetic/concentrated after eating? If yes, then your blood sugar was probably too low, indicating low blood sugar – hypoglycemia. To avoid blood sugar swings (high and low), it’s important to have balanced meals/snack by having protein, healthy fats and not too much healthy carbs. Ideally, when you eat healthy foods at the right proportions you will feel no difference after and between your meals. Your energy will be stable through the day.
For those who are carving more info, let’s briefly present CARBOHYDRATES.
Carbohydrates comprise of simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Sugars belong to carbohydrates, compounds constructed from carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms.
Simple carbohydrates are structurally the simplest carbohydrates and two groups can be distinguished: monosaccharides and disaccharides.
- Monosaccharides (1 sugar unit), often called simple sugars, can’t be broken down to smaller carbohydrate units, the most common include glucose, fructose and galactose.
- Disaccharides (2 sugar units) consist of two simple sugar units (two monosaccharides), examples include lactose, sucrose, maltose and trehalose. Sucrose is a table sugar.
Complex carbohydrates are structurally longer carbohydrates including oligosaccharides containing 3 to 10 saccharide units and polysaccharides containing more than 10 units.
- Oligosaccharides (3-10 sugar units) consist of 3 to 10 simple sugar units and the most common include raffinose, stachyose, and verbacose.
- Polysaccharides (more than 10 sugar units) are long chains of simple sugar units ranging from several units up to the hundreds. You can find among this group plant starch and cellulose, and animal derived glycogen. Starch, cellulose and glycogen consist of only glucose units. Dietary fiber belongs to this group.
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