There is no denying that sugar has become everyone’s favorite nutritional enemy these days. Everything from The Keto Diet to the USDA Dietary guidelines expresses warnings against excess sugar consumption. But are we sure that sugar is “bad,” or that we need to avoid it? After all, sugar is in many things, and the guidelines become a little more complex as sugar splits off into its different types such as naturally occurring sugar, added sugar, pure maple syrup, honey, cane sugar, the list goes on. Let’s look at some sweet details in attempts to settle the great sugar debate.
When we hear the word “sugar” most of us think of white, granulated sugar. Another name for the white granulated sugar is sucrose. Sucrose is typically produced from sugar beet or cane sugar plant. Although this sugar is naturally derived, the purpose of it is to be used as an added sweetener in recipes, packaged goods, and more. This is why all calorie-containing sweeteners are considered added sugars. This includes honey, cane sugar, turbinado sugar (sometimes called raw sugar), pure maple syrup, and agave. Although the processing and refining of white granulated sugar and turbinado sugar (raw sugar) and has some differences, they are almost nutritionally identical. In other words, limiting the consumption of all added sweeteners is ideal.
Oppositely, several different types of sugar do occur in foods naturally. Some examples include fructose – fruit sugar and lactose – milk sugar. These two sugars are not added to the above-mentioned foods; therefore, they are natural sugars. What makes natural sugars different? They are contained in foods that provide other nutritional benefits. Fruits provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and water. Additionally, fiber slows down the digestion of food, which slows down the absorption of sugars from fruit. All of these nutrients help to make fruit a net win.
A huge reason for fearing sugar is the idea that sugar can be blamed for unwanted weight gain. So, does sugar cause weight gain? Simply, yes and no. Common foods with excess added sugar are often indulgent foods, such as baked goods, candy and ice cream. These foods are typically both calorie-dense and high in added sugars. Despite their caloric density, they tend not to be satiating, making over-eating sugary foods easy. This perfect storm can often lead to weight gain.
Curiously, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) revealed some interesting information on sugar. Per this survey, added sugar intake in US adults increased from 1960, but peaked in 1999. From 1999 to about 2016, added sugar intake has been on the decline. Still, obesity has continued to steadily rise from 13.4% in 1960 to 40% in 2016. In other words, sugar cannot be completely to blame, because the obesity prevalence continued to rise even as added sugar consumption declined. Added sugar is a contributor to excess calories and weight gain, however, one can argue it is not the only culprit.
Although added sugar should be avoided in excess, it still has advantages and can easily fit into a balanced diet. Sugar being an easy-to-digest ingredient makes it a perfect food to have soon before a workout. Glucose (sugar) is the body’s preferred form of energy, which makes a simple sugar food like fruit with a little peanut butter or a granola bar with some added sugar a great pre-workout snack in order to give your body quick glucose energy during exercise.
Another reason sugar can fit into the diet – it tastes great! It is important to not completely deny yourself of indulgent foods. We know too much is not ideal, but practicing moderation and allowing yourself freedom with food is a sign of a healthy diet and a healthy relationship with food. A little honey in oatmeal, or one KitKat on Halloween is not the sugar we should worry about. It is the consistent soda, snacks and hidden sugars in processed foods that add up overtime to poor habits and poor health outcomes.
Sugar is a part of food for a reason. It provides energy, makes things taste better and is often found in foods that have many other health benefits. Sugar in general is not the cause of weight gain, as there are many things that play into a person’s overall food intake and weight. Consider limiting your added sugars as these can add up in ones diet, which may lead to unwanted weight gain and poor health outcomes. Bottom line, nutrition is all about balance! Aim to improve consistent habits, but enjoy a sporadic [trick or] treat!