Sugar is everywhere. When we’re celebrating even the smallest of occasions, feeling sluggish in the afternoon or stressed at the end of a long day, we reach for something sweet. Even when we’re trying to be healthy and grab easy options on our way out the door, there’s likely sugar in them.
Beyond indulgences, sugar is in pretty much every food. It’s added to obvious things like desserts, but hidden in a lot of savory things too, like sauces and salad dressings.
It’s often snuck into ‘healthy’ foods like yogurt, oatmeal, energy bars and protein powder. It’s difficult to avoid if you’re choosing a lot of processed or pre-made foods.
One problem with added sugar in processed foods is that you cannot control the amount or the quality. To fully understand sugar, it’s important to know what sugar actually is, so I’m going to explain it briefly below (hopefully without your eyes glazing over).
The Difference Between Added Sugar And Sugar In Fruit
There are many different forms of sugar. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate along with starches and fiber. Sugar is considered a simple carbohydrates because it digests and absorbs quickly. Starches and fiber are complex and must be broken into simple sugars to be absorbed, so they're slower to digest.
The speed in which carbohydrates and sugars are digested and absorbed is important because a main concern about them is how quickly they enter your bloodstream. The more sugar that enters at once, the more potential for harmful effects.
The most harmful type of carbohydrate is added and refined sugar, found in processed foods and desserts. These are the simplest forms, ready to enter the blood almost immediately. They have been extracted from their natural form, and are typically concentrated in these foods. Simple carbs, like foods containing white flour, act similarly to refined sugar. They digest and absorb into the blood quickly and add to the blood sugar spike. These foods typically lack nutrients making them empty calories.
Sugar is roblematic when you eat and absorb too much of it at one time. What’s that limit? It’s hard to say. Since everyone responds to and metabolizes sugar at a different rate, it’s difficult to have a set recommendation, but the USDA recommends a maximum of added sugar at 5% of daily calories. So if you are eating around 1800 calories/day, that amounts to 90 calories, 6 tsp, 25 grams, maximum throughout the entire day. Some yogurts and fruit juices contain about that just in one serving!
Sugars in whole, real foods, like fruits, can still spike the blood sugar, but differ from added and refined sugars. First, the amount of simple sugar per serving is not nearly as high as processed foods. A serving of fruit is about ½-1 cup. Fruits contain a mixture of simple and complex sugars while also providing fiber and other nutrients, which slow absorption. They're also nutrient dense meaning they aren't empty calorie foods.
Why You Don’t Want Your Blood Sugar To Spike
When you digest simple carbohydrates, they are typically turned into glucose, and are absorbed into the blood right away. That causes a blood sugar spike, which thickens your blood. That alone reduces oxygen and nutrients from reaching cells in your body, but can also cause damage to vessels and lead to increased inflammation.
Then, insulin is released to quickly lower sugar levels. High insulin levels are damaging as well. After years of this cycle, your cells become less sensitive to insulin, so you need more to actually get sugar into the cells for energy and to lower your blood sugar, which can lead to diabetes type 2.
Basics Of Added, Refined Sugar.
It’s important to remember that most carbohydrates are turned into glucose, whether it’s refined, added, in breads and pasta or from whole foods. The speed in which carbs are broken into glucose and then absorbed, is what varies depending on your source of carbs. Below are common forms of refined sugars. Many refined sugars are a combination of fructose and glucose, and go by many different names on food labels.
This is a simple sugar, aside from glucose, that is absorbed into the blood. You don’t need insulin to metabolize fructose. It goes to the liver and is turned into triglycerides. The amount your triglyceride level rises in your blood is dependent on how much is absorbed at one time, more at once would reflect higher levels. The higher your triglyceride level is, the more potential there is for harmful effects.
Depending on how much you eat and the energy your body needs at that time, triglycerides are either stored as body fat or broken down into glucose and ketones to be used for energy. This explains why high fructose corn syrup is not a good source of carbohydrates.
Some refer to fructose as ‘healthy’ sugars because they don’t spike the blood sugar, but they can be harmful in other ways. Fructose is found in fruits, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, coconut sugar, baked goods and processed foods.
Glucose is the main energy source for the body. Carbohydrates, (along with body fat and even proteins if energy is needed), are eventually turned into glucose for energy. Insulin is needed to lower blood glucose levels by escorting it into cells across every part of the body, so they can use it for energy.
This is white, table sugar and is a mixture of fructose and glucose. You digest sucrose by breaking it into fructose and glucose and they metabolize via their respective pathways.
If you’re thinking fake sugars seem like a good choice, think again. Fake sugars may be even worse than refined sugar. I generally recommend for people to eat real sugar over fake sugar. They release free radicals in the body which cause inflammation and are thought to interfere with metabolism, gut health, gut flora and hormone balance, while also worsening sugar cravings.
Below are some, almost immediate, benefits you can experience by reducing your simple carbohydrate intake, aside from preventing and improving diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Low blood sugar is known to cause headaches. When your blood sugar spikes, a lot of insulin is released (sometimes too much) to quickly lower it, which causes low blood sugar. If you eat added sugar throughout the day, this cycle repeats and can be to blame for your headaches.
In general, studies link high sugar consumption with less sleep. One reason, is that if you have a blood sugar spike at night, your blood sugar can be too low in the middle of the night interrupting healthy sleep patterns. Plus, people who consume a lot of sugar and simple carbohydrates are often overweight, a risk factor for sleep apnea, which significantly decreases sleep quality.
Sugar and insulin spikes decrease circulation and increase inflammation. This can wreak havoc on your glow. Your skin won’t be as plump and hydrated or nourished with the vitamins and minerals it needs to appear healthy and glowing.
We’ve all experienced a sugar low and that tired and sluggish feeling that comes with it. It’s common to feel this way in the afternoon, usually when the blood sugar is low after eating lunch with simple carbohydrates. Stabilizing your blood sugar by eating less sugar and simple carbs, you’ll likely have more energy, especially in times you normally experience sugar lows.
Drastic blood sugar fluctuations can cause more than just headaches. When your blood sugar plummets after a spike, you’ll feel starving. If you feel like you’re hungry all the time, especially if you ate recently, your sugar and simple carb intake could be to blame.
Aside from feeling hangry (low blood sugar often caused by a sugar spike), high sugar and simple carb intake is thought to worsen anxiety and depression. Stabilizing your blood sugar can also stabilize your moods and your ability to manage anxiety.
Reduce Belly Fat
Eating too much sugar and simple carbs at one time, means there’s too much energy for what the body needs and it will be stored as body fat, for the next time you need energy and there’s not enough in the blood. If you constantly have high glucose spikes, more and more will be stored as fat, particularly around the midsection, without allowing your body to use the fat it’s already stored.
Sugar is acidic when inside the body, so if you suffer from heartburn, reducing sugar intake can improve your symptoms. Sugar can also cause unhealthy gut organisms to overgrow, which leads to symptoms of IBS, gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation as well as the various complications of an unbalanced gut.
Tips to help you reduce sugar intake:
Eat balanced meals and snacks
By balancing sugars and simple carbs with other components each time you eat, you can slow its absorption while also not eating as much, since you’ll fill up on fiber, fats and proteins, rather than not feeling very full after a serving of empty carbs.
Don’t drink it
Beverages that have sugar in them, even ‘healthy’ fruit juices with no added sugar, have nothing else to slow the absorption. They are also typically concentrated sources of simple sugars and will cause your blood sugar to spike.
Cut down on processed foods
Food labels don’t tell you which carbs are simple and complex (they do include fiber content though), so it’s difficult to know by reading them what type of carbohydrate you’re eating. Reading the ingredients list can give you a good idea, though sugar goes by many names you might not recognize. Since the sugar and simple carbs in processed and packaged foods are often unbalanced to other nutrients that would slow its absorption, it’s best to reduce processed foods altogether.
Slowly wean off of it
If going cold turkey isn’t an option for you, then try to wean off of it gradually. If you frequently drink soda or other sweetened beverages like teas and juices, it’s helpful to dilute it with either seltzer water or plain water. You can start with a little at first and each day dilute more and more until you change your tastes and don’t need as much sweets. Give it a try, your tastes will quickly change and things will taste much sweeter to you than they used to.
Walk After Meals
A great way to help your body reduce blood sugar after meals and not store extra as body fat, is to exercise after eating. This will help your body use the energy from what you just ate while you get the added benefits of exercise. Simply walking for 15-20 minutes can be helpful.
Displace With Whole Food Carbohydrates
If you're cooking at home and looking for ways to reduce sugar in recipes, you can use sweeter whole foods, like mashed apples or bananas or a couple of dates or apricots. Getting your carb intake from whole foods, like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, other fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes will help you get enough fiber and fats to prevent sugar spikes.
I want to hear from you in the comments below! How do feel when you eat more or less sugar? What's the hardest part of trying to eat less of it?
I want to add in that it can be difficult to get some straight answers about sugar. The sugar industry is no joke and makes A LOT of money off of its consumption. They have involved themselves in government dietary recommendations, studies on the effects of sugar and medical and nutrition education. This explains why there are some studies out there that show sugar doesn't cause any negative health effects. If you're doing research on the subject, make sure you see who's funding the studies used to ensure there's no conflict of interest on either side. This is part of the criteria I use when gaining information on topics.