Let's talk about sugar! It's definitely a hot topic right now with movies like Fed Up! being released and people becoming more aware of the dangers of artificial sweeteners but I still see there a lot of people are confused. They know they should limit their sugar intake but there are SO any types of sugar that it can be hard to know which to avoid or what the better options are. So let's talk about it!
I'm not going to get too into the whole science of sugar but I want to cover a few of the basics because I think it'll help people to understand it better overall. Sugar is a carbohydrate so it provides 9 calories per gram and like any carb is used for energy (carbs are our body's main source of energy). If there is too much for our body to use at the time, it is stored as fat. Another name for sugar is sucrose. Sucrose is made up of fructose and glucose. These naturally occur in fruit and vegetables which brings me to the first question I want to answer.
Is the sugar in fruit the same as refined sugar?
Yes and no. Our body does break down sugar, whether it's natural or refined, into the same thing and either can be stored as fat. The difference lies in how quickly it is digested. Fruit contains fiber which slows down digestion. This allows our bodies to use the sugar energy over a longer period of time. With refined sugar, we experience a "sugar rush" because we are digesting it at a much faster rate. It hits us quickly but then also leaves us quickly, hence the term "sugar crash". Fruit also, of course, contains a lot of health benefits making it a healthier choice over all. That's not to say you shouldn't still practice moderation and bio-individuality. Different people have different tolerance levels for fructose so you may have to experiment to see what works. I like to eat a lot of fruit, especially during warmer months, so I make sure to include a lot of fruits that contain less sugar and have a lower glycemic load (I will explain that in a minute). This includes fruits such as raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, nectarines, oranges, pink grapefruit, red grapes, plus, pomegranate, blackberries, cherries, apples and pears. Generally 3-4 servings of fruit a day is recommended so don't feel like you need to avoid it! In fact, please don't. The health benefits are ridic! Oh but watch out for dried fruit because the sugar content is much higher!
What does a high or low glycemic load mean?
The glycemic load estimates how a food will raise a person's blood glucose (remember, glucose is sugar) levels after consuming it. A low glycemic load means it will have less of a effect than a high glycemic load. Whole grains actually have a high glycemic load although we don't generally think of them as "sugary" but remember, sugar is a carbohydrate. Here's a look at the glycemic load of some foods (source)
Low Glycemic Load (10 or under)
Medium Glycemic Load (11-19)
High Glycemic Load (20+)Which sweetener is the healthiest choice?
All sugar should be consumed in moderation but there are better and worse options. Maple sugar has less fructose so it's generally a good choice. I know agave nectar gained a lot of popularity but it has a TON of fructose and in fact is quite similar to high fructose corn syrup which we all know is bad! Some other better options include pure maple syrup, date sugar, raw honey, molasses, Stevia, coconut sugar and yacon sugar. Notice how these come from real food sources? They are less processed than your basic table sugar. Here's a recipe for making your own date sugar!
Why are artificial sweeteners so bad?
The simple answer is because they are unnatural and our bodies do not recognize them as real food. Our immune system is made up of cells and they have the job of fighting off anything they see as a threat! How do they know what is a threat? Well, every food and cell basically has a "name tag", a way to be identified. Our cells recognize some but not others. They also have memory and can remember which foods were bad (which can lead to food sensitivities). The idea is that the cells turn on to fight and then turn off when the fight is over but if you are constantly consuming "food like products" then your immune system is having to constantly fight! This can lead to what is called chronic inflammation and trust me, you do not want that. Artificial sweeteners are not natural but are popular because they are lower in calories. If something is labeled as "low sugar" or "light", it often contains artificial sweeteners. Diet pop for example! It's actually worse for you than regular because of the artificial sweeteners. They are toxic, plain and simple. Here's a list of artificial sweeteners including aspartame, sucralose, sorbitol and more plus the brands who sell them.
When you juice produce, you lose a lot of the fiber. Fruit juice is sometime referred to as "liquid sugar" but I do feel that there is a difference between fresh fruit juice and the stuff you buy on a store shelf which has been pasteurized. Pasteurized means that heat was applied in order to kill bacteria and give it a longer shelf life but unfortunately, also killing off a lot of the nutrients. I personally rarely buy pasteurized or flash-pasteurized (lower heat) juice but I will make my own at home. Juicing has become very popular and I am a big fan of it BUT vegetable juice is where the real nutritious benefits are. Always try to use more vegetables than fruit when juicing. Aim for a ratio of at least 3:1. You can also try to include fruits with a lower glycemic load like I mentioned earlier. Think of fruit as a way to sweeten and add more flavour to a drink rather than it being the main ingredient.
How do I cut back on my sugar intake?
Sugar is super addicting (uh, it has been compared to cocaine!) so cutting back can be really difficult. You will most likely even experience detox symptoms. Here are a few of my tips for cutting back!
1. Always read nutrition labels. See how much sugar is in the product as well as how many serving sizes it contains. If it's a sweet product but you don't see a high amount of sugar listed, it may contain an artificial sweetener.
2. Check the ingredients. They are listed in a specific order. The ingredient listed first means that the product contains more of it than any of the other ingredients and that continues with the last ingredient being the least present in the food item. If sugar is one of the first few ingredients, be careful!
3. Eat more naturally sweet fruits and vegetables. This can really help with cravings! Some sweet vegetables include snap peas, carrots, sweet potatoes and beets.
4. Limit how often you consume refined sugar products. Like I said, it's very addicting! Buy fewer processed foods and more WHOLE foods. Don't buy cookies every time you grocery shop or get dessert every time you eat out. Treat it as... a treat! Honestly, you'll probably find that you enjoy it more that way. Plus you'll feel a whole heck of a lot better.
I hear dark chocolate is a healthy sweet option?
Yep! But make sure it's at least 70% cocoa. Yeah, it has a more bitter taste and may take some getting used to but it's the healthier option. Cacao is the raw form of chocolate and is amazing for you so you can also experiment with that! There are raw cacao bars and it also comes in the form of nibs (kinda like chocolate chips) and powder! It's bitter on its own but absolutely delicious when sweetened up a bit. Also, again, practice moderation. I know I've said it a bunch of times and normally I avoid that word because I feel like it's too general but the point is, "more is not always better"!
When checking the ingredients, what are some other names for sugar that I can look for?
Dudes, it's a long list... like 200+! I think food companies are trying to outsmart us! There's a super long list here you can read (includes artificial sweeteners) but here are some of the more common ones... (source)
- Barley Malt Syrup
- Beet Sugar
- Brown Rice Syrup
- Brown Sugar
- Cane Crystals (or, even better, "cane juice crystals")
- Cane Sugar
- Coconut Sugar, or Coconut Palm Sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids
- Dehydrated Cane Juice
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Palm Sugar
- Raw sugar
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum or sorghum syrup
- Turbinado Sugar
Well, that's that! I know it was a lot of info but I hope I kept it pretty straight forward and easy to understand. If you have any questions, comment away!