Sugar gets a bad rap. A popular YouTube video by Robert Lustig titled, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, garnered a lot of negative attention for sugar. The New York Times magazine even published an article about the dangers of sugar two years later. These documentaries demonized sugar in the modern human diet.
No one can argue, sugar has been tied to a plethora of negative side effects, most prominently, obesity and type II diabetes. There evidence points to the fact that sugar is not good for you; however, it’s important to consider the underlying facts behind all the evidence. Namely, that all the studies on sugar indicate correlation and not causation. Furthermore, it’s important that we distinguish what type of sugar is being studied.
There are a lot of variables that many people don’t consider when looking at sugar in the modern human diet. We need to take a look at sugar consumption as a whole, why our bodies need it and crave it, an understanding of different types of sugars, and finally, the right way to consume sugar.
Why we Crave Sugars
David Katz, M.D, of the Yale Prevention Research Center wrote a great article outlining the pros of sugar on the Huffington Post Blog. In the article, he outlines how tastes buds were a way for us to survive, to differentiate between something that is bitter and sweet. For our ancestors, sweet was a reward signal in the brain, which triggered consumption, while something bitter signaled us to not consume. It was a mechanism that helped us to identify sources of energy, and potential threats in the food we were consuming. From this perspective, it makes sense why we want and crave sugar. Not only does it taste great, but sugar is also an abundant source of quick energy, a scarcity for our ancestors.
The bigger picture is that humans need energy to survive. Because of this, we instinctually seek out sugar. We need energy, specifically carbohydrates, to provide us with energy to survive and to perform, whether that’s for day-to-day functions or for optimal training. Because of this, it’s important to take a look at what sugar really is and how it’s processed in our bodies.
A Quick Breakdown of Carbohydrates
Sugar is another term for sweet, short chain, soluble carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are just a make up of those molecules, which can be broken down as follows:
- Monosaccharide: The simplest sugar make up, a singular sugar molecule
- Disaccharide: A combination of two sugar molecules
- Polysaccharide: Multiple Sugar molecules
These carbohydrates can be classified as “simple” (monosaccharaides and disaccharides) or “complex”. Simple carbohydrates break down quickly in your body, while complex carbohydrates get break down slowly. Here are some examples of where you can find these types of carbohydrates:
- Simple Carbohydrates: Fructose (Fruit), Sucrose (Table Sugar) Lactose and Galactose (Milk)
- Complex Carbohydrates: Vegetables, Pasta, Potatoes
When you ingest carbohydrates, they get broken down into glucose, which is then released into the blood stream, also known as blood sugar level. Insulin is then released to deliver glucose to your muscles and liver, replenishing your energy stores. If those energy stores are full, the glucose then gets converted into fat.
The take away here is that humans need energy. The type of energy that we need at a given time is dependent on your activity level, physical health, and so forth.
This is where the confusion comes in. Mainstream media and other experts point to studies that indicate that too many carbohydrates are bad for your health. Especially simple carbohydrates like sugar. But sugar comes in many forms, and it’s important to understand the different types of sugar.
A Quick Breakdown of Sugars
Sucrose, or table sugar, is a refined sugar, which is extracted from the sugarcane and sugar beet. By definition, refined can be considered artificial. It’s important to note that sucrose isn’t the only type of artificial sugar, there are many others.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
All of these sugars can be found in foods like diet soda and artificial sweeteners like Splenda. High Fructose Corn Syrup has made its way into much more, like name brand cereals, condiments, cookies, and cakes. These are the foods that the general population is consuming too much of.
The studies that have been used to identify sugar as the culprit for epidemics like obesity and type II diabetes, term sugar as an umbrella term, both artificial and naturally occurring sugar. It’s no wonder why sugar has been given such a bad name. The reality is that you can, and should, eat sugar.
How to Consume Sugar: Unprocessed and Moderately
Sugar should be consumed. The issue isn’t whether or not it should be excluded from your diet, but the type of sugars that should be consumed, and how much. Yes, some sugars, like high fructose corn syrup, are linked to obesity and diabetes. This doesn’t mean that you should stop eating naturally occurring sugars like those found in fruit or honey.
Nutritionists will unanimously agree naturally occurring and unprocessed sugars are not only good for you, but also necessary for optimal health. They would also heed warning that you can over consume even naturally occurring sugars.. As with anything, the poison is in the dose. Even naturally occurring foods like cinnamon, can be dangerous if over consumed.
As a general guideline, stick with eating a diet high in protein and vegetables. It’s okay to eat fruit. Finally, don’t feel guilty, or worry about potential negative health effects of consuming sugar every once in a while. Dessert won’t kill you. Moderation is key.
Cassie Platt, author of Don’t Quit Sugar, puts it best, “Eating should never be underpinned by ideas of exclusion”. And the same applies to sugar. Is eating too much sugar bad for you? Definitely, but consuming it moderately certainly isn’t. In fact, it’s necessary.