Sister-friends, I don’t know about you but the way I keep hearing about sugar I feel like it’s a celebrity right now. In the news, in health magazines and websites, new books and articles, the “sugar epidemic” is popping up. As I’ve begun to broaden my understanding and eduction of food and health this past year, I quickly became confused at all the different sugar opinions I came across.
Yes drink smoothies, no fruit is bad for you, don’t eat any sugar, sugar isn’t the real problem, store-bought juice is great for you, and on and on and on….
Getting fed up with it all (no pun intended), I began to really research sugar and it’s affects on the body, the different forms sugar takes, and how sugar affects us. While this is in no way a complete guide, hopefully this can be a starting point for you in understanding sugar and it’s role in our body…and why you should and shouldn’t eat sugar.
There are two main forms of sugar: natural sugar and refined sugar (often called “table sugar” or “baking sugar”).
Natural sugar = the sugar found naturally (duh) in fruits and vegetables (fructose) and in dairy products (lactose).
Refined sugar = the sugar that is comes from sugar beets/sugar cane, in a process that extracts their sugar (sucrose, a combination of glucose and fructose).
What to watch out for: there are many names that sucrose hides under, to name a few: high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, cane juice, coconut sugar, date sugar, dextrose. (See a full list here.) Refined sugar is often accompanied by added chemicals as well.
While it is clear to tell if you are consuming sugar when eating watermelon, refined sugar is a lot more tricky because it is often added to non-sweet foods to add flavoring (ahem bread, crackers, sauces).
The main difference between natural sugar and refined sugar is that natural sugar is accompanied by nutrients (think fiber) and minerals, which change the way our body digests it;
refined sugar is isolated and broken down until it is just the plain sucrose, without any nutrients.
This is important because it changes the way our body reacts to and stores sugar.
OUR BODIES DIGESTING SUGAR
While all sugar digestion begins in our mouths, the most important part of sugar digestion occurs in the small intestine, where the fructose and sucrose are broken down. Here’s the difference:
When we eat an apple/strawberries (natural sugar): the sugar (fructose) in fruit is digested in the small intestine more slowly because it is accompanied by fiber (among other nutrients). The fiber in the fruit helps the body take it’s time digesting the fruit and releases that energy slowly, which helps keep the body full longer and provides a steady energy.
When we eat a muffin/snickers bar (refined sugar): the sugar (sucrose) in a muffin, lacking the fiber of fruit/veggies, is broken down almost instantly in the small intestine and causes a dramatic spike in blood sugar. The body makes up for this by releasing insulin to regulate the amount of sugar now in the blood (and stores some of it as fat), which then results in a drop in energy.
A word on blood sugar (also commonly called the blood glucose level): it is the amount of glucose (sugar) found in our blood. Glucose is the primary source of energy for humans (both immediate energy and long-term storage of energy). Blood sugar drops when you don’t eat regularly and is also caused by drinking too much alcohol and taking certain drugs. Blood sugar rises due to several different factors including stress, certain medications, and digesting too much sugar.
When your blood sugar drops (hypoglycemia) or spikes (hyperglycemia) continually your body’s cells are not able to perform well, resulting in medical issues. →For example, diabetes is primarily caused by hyperglycemia (in other words, if you continually eat foods with sucrose in them, causing your blood sugar to jump, your body won’t be able to regularly help lower your blood sugar by producing enough insulin, placing yourself at risk for diabetes, among other diseases).
WHY SUGAR MATTERS
While just one of the reasons, fiber is a key difference between natural and refined sugar’s affects on our body. Not only does fiber help prevent sugar from being stored as fat in our bodies (weight gain), it helps us stay full longer which prevents unnecessary snacking (and aids in maintaining a healthy weight).
Fiber also helps maintain a healthy GI tract, which has been linked to mental health conditions such as addictions, depression, anxiety, and others. Fiber also helps the healthy bacteria in our gut to be sustained, which helps our bodies function properly.
There are many other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which the body needs that are in whole fruit, many of which help reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Not to mention you aren’t ingesting added chemicals and flavorings that often accompany refined sugar.
If you take out all this goodness and insert plain refined sugar into different foods, your body ultimately can’t handle all the sucrose it’s ingesting (not to mention the added chemicals).
MAKE INFORMED CHOICES
As you now know, fructose, lactose, and sucrose are WAY different! This is important to know when learning about “good” sugar, “bad” sugar, what to eat, and what hurts our bodies.
“Sugar” is not just sugar. One sugar is quite different from another and should not be treated the same.
Hopefully this can help give you a base understanding of sugar and how it affects our bodies. Why the sugar in fruit is not the same as sugar in cake or even “healthy” foods like energy bars and smoothies.
Next week we’ll take a look at what happens to the nutrients and minerals in fruit when made into smoothies and other drinks and the (hint: HUGE) difference between store-bought and homemade!
I’d love to know your experience with sugar and how you feel about the way sugar is portrayed in our culture currently…is it confusing? Unimportant? Informative?