Have a sweet tooth? Feeling guilty about it? No need. Let’s get a grip on science vs. fiction and understand how to best indulge. I want to remind sugar-shamers that there was a time when we thought fat was the devil (so ’90’s). We finally agree that healthy fats in reasonable amounts are essential. Now, sugar is the most popular villain in the nutrition lexicon. Obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes are terrifyingly common. Sugar also gets blamed for systemic inflammation and premature wrinkles. The health crisis is real and we need to name the enemy – in 2017, it’s the sweet stuff.
The truth: some enjoyment can be free of fear with a little wisdom and a lot of common sense. The problem: we’re simply over-doing it. We need to stop calling-out a single nutrient and take responsibility for consuming too much of a good thing.
What’s on The Table?
We have a dizzying number of options when it comes to that nostalgic flavor: white (table) sugar, turbinado (raw) sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, coconut sugar, date sugar…
Let’s get it straight: despite a lot of wicked marketing, real evidence confirms that one is not healthier than another. Our bodies respond to each in the same way – breakdown into glucose for fuel or (if you’re eating too much) storage as body fat. Agave? Coconut? That little white packet at the diner? All the same deal once they’re in your blood. Some are sexy fads, but none is superior.
Sure, there are minor differences – a couple more calories per gram, a few more trace minerals, or a slight variation in the ratio of glucose to fructose. Bottom line: we shouldn’t be eating so much sugar that any of this is nutritionally significant. The best way to choose is by the flavor you prefer. It’s as uncomplicated as that.
What’s On The Label?
Natural sweeteners go by the names of sucrose, dextrose, maltose, barley malt, rice syrup… there are at least 60 different tricky terms. They’re all just plain sugar and should be labeled as such. Shame on Big Food.
My advice: if it’s sweet, has a label and the ingredients don’t read “sugar”, the manufacturer is trying to get one over on you. Don’t be fooled. If you wouldn’t keep it in your pantry, put it back on the shelf. Anything containing “High Fructose Corn Syrup” is a nutritional dinosaur and doesn’t deserve your dollar.
What About Zero Calorie Sweeteners?
Leave the chemical posers alone. While they are GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) by the FDA, we just don’t know. We do know that cane and beet sugar have been consumed for centuries and are not harmful as long as we are sensible about the amount.
One fun example of GRAS: Beaver Castor Sac Secretion is approved by the FDA as natural flavor additive that tastes like vanilla. Granted, it’s expensive (and gross) to process, so it’s not used in many products. The point is, juice from a cavity that sits right next to a beaver’s butt is acceptable in processed food. Might be safe. And so might aspartame, saccharine, acesulfame and sucralose. But, I’m sticking with pure vanilla made from the bean and the sugar my grandmother ate. She passed away last month, healthy and witty until the end, at the ripe age of 99.
Then there’s stevia, the most recently approved natural zero-calorie sweetener. I get the appeal, it doesn’t add calories and it sounds so natural. But, the stevia product that you’re buying at the store went through a 40-step chemical process and contains almost none of the original plant. Think about it.
Besides unknown health consequences, the problem with “sugar-free” is that we tend to eat more. Sucralose-laden ice cream sandwiches? How many did we eat? Let’s add up the calories and ingredients that we can’t pronounce. We’re better off with one cup of old-school-full-fat-real-sugar ice cream.
Here’s why: your body knows the truth about the food you’re giving it. Fake sugars are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter-tasting that the real thing and lack the satisfaction. The next time you go for a home baked cookie, you’ll want three because one just isn’t sweet enough. And there is zero proof that non-nutritive sweeteners aid weight loss or are at all beneficial to your health.
What About Alcohol Sugars?
Sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol are derived from plants and contain about half the calories of traditional sugar because they are messed-with by a chemical process that makes them less digestible. Avoid, unless you’re cool with gas and possibly the runs. I’d personally rather have what grandma kept in a jar on the kitchen counter and account for it by an 10 extra minutes on the treadmill.
What About Fruit?
Unless you are diabetic (in which case you can still eat sugar-containing foods in measured amounts), I give fresh fruit a free-pass because of the water, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that come along with it.
Just be mindful that a serving of dried fruit is significantly higher in sugar than fresh, and a 16-ounce smoothie can really pack it in as well – so consider these desserts, not fruits.
What the F#@% is the Glycemic Index?
The GI is a method of measuring sugar’s impact on our systems that is hugely flawed. It calculates what affect 50 grams of carbohydrates has on the average person’s blood sugar compared to ingesting pure glucose. Foods get a number rating that claims to tell you something meaingful about what you’re eating on a scale of 1–100.
Here are the rules: Pure glucose gets a score of 100. A value of 70 or higher is considered “high” and therefore “bad”. Under 55 is considered “low” and therefore “good”.
Here’s why it’s weird: A Twix bar measures in at 44, watermelon at 72. Remember, we’re basing this on consuming of 50 grams of carbs. That’s one Twix bar compared to five cups of watermelon.
Most of us understand that a few wedges are enough – totaling 12 grams of carbs, not 50. Plus, if we ate watermelon, we got water, a little vitamin C, vitamin A and some fiber and potassium. I think we can all agree that fresh fruit is a better choice than a candy bar. The GI doesn’t take normal portions into account. It’s bs.
So, What Now?
Let’s be clear – carbohydrates and “sugar” are not interchangeable terms. Sugar is a component of carbohydrates along with starch and fiber.
Refined starches like white rice, white bread, pasta and potatoes are the same thing as table sugar when they hit your blood after some breakdown. Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them – just pay attention to portions.
Whole food starches like like beans, legumes, squashes, brown rice and whole grains are a better choice because they contain fiber that sweeps your colon, reduces blood cholesterol, calms insulin response and makes food more filling.
I advise my clients to aim for 50% of calories from carbs (25% from starches and 25% from vegetables and fruits) with a goal of no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) added sugar a day. This makes adequate fiber intake easy to achieve and keeps sugar consumption smart.
Starches, vegetables and whole fruit (unless you’re chowing through an entire apple orchard daily) do not count towards the six teaspoons. We’re talking about fruit juice, fruit concentrate, and the sugar you spoon into your coffee, add to baked goods or see on a processed food label.
What Does Six Teaspoons Look Like?
Let’s take a “healthy” product like coconut water (fruit juice). Popular brands contain 9 grams of sugar in an 8-ounce serving (2.25 tsp. sugar). Mind you, we’re usually consuming a 16-ounce bottle (4.5 tsp. sugar). Now, count your latte (3 tsp) and protein bar (2.5 tsp.). You’re up to 10 tsp. sugar and you just finished breakfast.
Alternative: Hydrate with water and one cup of fresh fruit. Follow-up your morning workout with a cup of coffee or tea sweetened with 1 tsp sugar plus my favorite power breakfast: 1 slice whole grain toast, ¼ smashed avocado and 1 egg any style. You still have 5 teaspoons left – room for dessert!
What to Remember:
Don’t fall prey to the hype: sugar by any other name is just as sweet. Read labels so you know how much you’re eating (divide grams by 4 to get the number of teaspoons) and steer clear of the pretenders.
Sugar itself is not the problem, excess is. Evidence-based studies show that extra pounds are what leads to inflammation and disease, not any one food or nutrient.
Give your body some credit. Assuming it’s healthy, it knows what to do with sugar – in any form, in responsible amounts. Choose intelligently and life can be sweet.
And try to forget about the beaver thing.
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