Sugar, Ah, Honey, Honey

It’s not news that excess sugar intake can lead to obesity and development of serious health conditions like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  But as humans, connecting to a sweet taste is one of our most primal senses and is necessary for sustaining life.  Carbohydrates, which are broken down into various types of “sugars,” are our primary fuel source for quick energy and to feed our brains.  But early man’s sugar sure doesn’t look like the sweet treats you’d find in a bakery case or packaged up in the cookie aisle at the grocery store.

In fact, back in 2008 the average American consumed about 77 grams or 19 teaspoons of sugar per day although this was down by 23% between 2000 & 2008.  However the American Heart Association suggests maximum sugar consumption of 37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons for men and 25 grams or 6 teaspoons for women.  This means that we were consuming about 3 times the amount suggested for our health! 

Sugar in Different Shapes & Sizes
We often lump sugar into one large, white granular category.  But sugar technically in a scientific sense refers to about 14 common types of sugars that are different types of structures and molecules.  The major categories include: 

  • Monosaccharides or simple sugars, like fructose or glucose
  • Disaccharides which are 2 monosaccharides joined together like sucrose (table sugar made from glucose + fructose) or lactose (glucose + galactose).
  • Oligosaccharides or small numbers of monosaccharides joined together like FOS or fructo-oligosaccharides found in plants like chicory and onions.
  • Polysaccharides which are longer chains or mono or disaccharides formed together like starch, dextrin, glycogen our stored form of glucose in our muscles liver and brain. 

Natural Sugars vs. Added Sugars is a big debate.  In fact, lobbying is going on in Washington to have ‘Added Sugars’ added to the food label to help consumers identify sugars that have been added into products versus those which occur naturally in the food.  For example, tomato sauce and salad dressings often have sugars added to them for taste.  

Some sugars may be healthier than others but all and especially added sugars should be consumed in moderation.  Let’s look at where much of our modern day sugar intake comes from: beverages.  Beverages like soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit “juice” account for about 33% of all added sugars according to experts 

Alcohol also can count as sugar in a sense and can contribute to high triglyceride levels in the blood; a risk for heart disease.  Alcohol also has more calories per gram than carbohydrates like rice and bread.  

The Fault in Our Fruit
So where does fruit and fresh juice made in your juicer fall on the spectrum of healthy vs. unhealthy sugars?  Many say that fruits should be limited and lumped into the same category as candy.  As a nutritionist I find this assertion lacks credibility although certainly vegetables should be consumed in a larger amount compared to fruits; like say 5 servings of veggies and 2 of fruits a day – this is what the Australian health authorities suggest and Harvard School of Public Health’s recommendations are in line as well.

But let’s look at the orange for example.  A medium sized orange has about 15.4 grams of carbohydrate. However it also contains fiber – 3.1 grams and over 170 phytonutrients, like vitamin C.  Some estimates show that eating 3 whole oranges would raise your blood sugar as much as drinking just a mere 6 oz. of commercial orange juice.  Three oranges would sure fill you up more and nourish your body better than 6 oz. of liquid!  The fiber and nutrients can influence absorption rate of carbohydrate and sugar in a positive way helping to slow this down. Slower absorptive rate means less spike and crash in sugar and energy and a less dramatic insulin response – chronic elevated insulin may be associated with risk of diseases including some types of cancer not just diabetes.    

Tips to Combat Sugar Cravings

  • Stay Hydrated.  Being under-hydrated can often heighten sugar cravings when what we really need is water.  Our bodies may think that we are hungry when in fact we are thirsty.
  • Include protein and healthy-fat rich foods like nuts with carbs like fruits or toast.
  • Cinnamon may help keep blood sugar levels in check.
  • Fiber is your friend.  Fiber, like protein, will slow down our absorption of carbohydrates helping to reduce an insulin spike.  Plus fiber helps keep us full which can assist in reducing sugar cravings and overeating not to mention a fiber rich diet is connected to lower risk of certain cancers and regulating digestion.
  • Be picky when eating out – bread, alcohol, dessert are all essentially “sugars” so choose one at most per meal.  

Want to see a comical spin on this not so funny issue?  Check out John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight segment; informative and frighteningly entertaining.