It is safe to say that Americans as a whole are addicted to sugar and eat far too much of it. According to research done in the last few years (supported by the USDA), the average American will consume roughly 75 pounds of sugar per year. Imagine stocking your pantry with fifteen 5 lb bags of sugar and using it all within just 12 months…yourself.
“The World Health Organization is dropping its sugar intake recommendations from 10 percent of your daily calorie intake to 5 percent. For an adult of a normal body mass index (BMI), that works out to about 6 teaspoons — or 25 grams — of sugar per day. Many people don’t realize much of the sugar they take in are “hidden” in processed foods, according to WHO. A can of soda may contain up to 10 teaspoons or 40 grams of sugar. A tablespoon of ketchup has 1 teaspoon of sugar.” (source: CBS News)
The dangers of eating sugar are obvious, from weight gain to tooth decay. However, there is more to the subject of sugars than the types you see on the supermarket shelves. Understanding true science behind the chemicals within sugars and the effects on the body will help you understand what sugars should be avoided and which are deemed to be healthier for you.
Types of Sugars: There are 2 categories of sugars and 6 types within those categories.
Monosaccharides – Monosaccharide sugars are also referred to as simple sugars or single sugars. These simple sugars are easier for the body to digest, which comes at a price when overeaten as these sugars can easily become fat. The three types of monosaccharides are:
- Glucose/Dextrose: Glucose and dextrose are one in the same, though many food companies seem to choose the term dextrose as they believe glucose has a negative connotation amongst consumers. This sugar is a natural sugar and found in fruits and plants. Glucose is turned into a syrup by food manufacturers to add to their products.
- Fructose: Fructose is the sweetest sugar and also a natural sugar. This sugar is found in fruits, cane sugar, honey and vegetables. It is also a common sugar used in processed sugars like white granulated sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. Because unprocessed fructose in whole fruits and vegetables is combined with fiber and nutrients, it’s considered to be far better than processed white sugar or corn syrup.
- Galactose: You may not have heard of galactose as this sugar is doesn’t occur individually but rather works with glucose. Galactose is found only in dairy products.
Disaccharides – Disaccharide sugars are compound sugars, also referred to as complex sugars. These complex sugars are formed when the above monosaccharide sugars combine. The three types of disaccharides are:
- Sucrose: This common type of sugar is formed when glucose and fructose combine. It occurs natural in fruits, sugar cane and sugar beet.
- Maltose: Maltose occurs in grains during the germination process. You’ve probably hear of barley malt which is where this sugar gets its name. This sugar is formed by different molecules of glucose combining.
- Lactose: Lactose is the milk sugar found in dairy products and is a combination of glucose and galactose. A special enzyme called lactase is required to digest lactose which is why some adults become lactose-intolerant- the enzyme dissipates as children age and no longer biologically need milk.
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All of these types of sugars listed begin as natural sugars, occurring in various foods without human interference. However, things can begin to go badly for your health when the foods they occur in are processed to extract the sugars. A lot of this has to do with how these sugars can affect blood sugar and insulin production (pre-diabetes, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, etc).
Natural Sugars vs Processed Sugars
Natural sugars are those that happen in any whole foods, whether its plant matter like fruit or animal matter like milk. These sugars are easy for the body to use since they digest quickly. Natural sugars give your body energy and the food they are present in deliver important nutrients. These natural sugars will appear most often as fructose and lactose and are thought of as “good” sugars.
Processed or refined sugars are often considered the “bad” sugars. Sucrose is the number one culprit when it comes to refined sugars and is what you buy every time you pick up a bag of sugar from the market. The dangers of consuming a lot of refined sugars are well documented and considered to even be a serious health risk in some circles. These refined sugars are rampant in manufactured foods, whether they are a bag of cookies, a box of crackers, tomato sauce or a jar of salad dressing.
With an ideal diet you don’t need to go out of your way to consume sugar, nor will you experience the side effects of too much sugar. Your body knows how to handle natural sugars and by eating sources of natural sugar like fruits you are nourishing your body by getting fiber, vitamins and minerals. Avoid refined, processed sugars as much as possible.
Sugar’s Effect on Insulin
Insulin is a hormone that helps the absorption of nutrients from the food you eat. Insulin is primarily affected when carbohydrates are eaten, particularly sugar. As you eat carbohydrates your blood sugar level raises which spurs your pancreas to release insulin. The insulin hormone helps lower your blood sugar levels by taking the sugar and putting it into muscles cell and the liver. The sugars can then be used as an energy source.
Simple sugars digest very quickly which causes your body to release insulin more quickly than it would with complex sugars. This sounds fine but the problem occurs when you eat too many simple carbs and sugars. Have you noticed that when you drink coffee regularly you begin to feel less of an effect from the caffeine? Your body becomes dulled to it. Similarly, if you eat a lot of processed, simple sugars your body will reduce your sensitivity to insulin. Insulin insensitivity known as insulin resistance can lead to weight gain, pre-diabetes and digestive issues. Prolonged insulin resistance can lead to to Type 2 Diabetes and could be a risk factor for cancer (as you can see in this study).
Avoiding processed sugar and maintaining a healthy diet high in natural, whole foods is the best way to prevent insulin sensitivity and ensure you are giving your body the nutrients it needs. Limit your uses of refined sugar and try to use more natural sources of sweeteners like pure maple syrup or stevia powder. Also, remember that sugar in excessive amounts, even natural sugars, can still be damaging, especially if you have insulin or blood sugar issues already.
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