Sugar: The Good, Bad and the Ugly

The word “sugar” has a sinful connotation. It’s turned into this affliction we know we should avoid. It is true that sugar in excess can potentially be dangerous to our health, but here are four things to know that can help you enjoy sugar moderately at a healthy level:

What is “Sugar” Exactly?

Sugar is the sweet carbohydrate that contains a group of molecules that include carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen (think CARB-O-HYDRate). Sugars are created by these three elements linked together in some form or another. The smallest sugars are called monosaccharides (mono- means “one”), and you may have heard of them:

  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Galactose

Think of each of these monosaccharides as a pearl on a necklace. Each pearl can stand alone as a single unit of sugar. Now, take two of these pearls and bind them together on that necklace. These two pearls form the second type of sugar - disaccharides which are two monosaccharides linked together. The disaccharides are:

  • Sucrose (glucose + fructose)
  • Lactose (glucose + galactose)
  • Maltose (glucose + glucose)

Sucrose forms what we know as “table sugar.” It can be processed and refined into the white granular stuff that we sprinkle in our coffee, dump into our cakes and pies, and that serves so many other purposes besides these mentioned. Monosaccharides and disaccharides are called 'simple sugars” or “simple carbohydrates.” They are very small units, typically found in baked goods, and milk products. They are also found in fruits, but the naturally occurring simple sugars in whole fruits are accompanied by a host of fiber and other nutrients. When you begin to link these small, simple carbohydrates into more complex chains, they become complex carbohydrates, or “polysaccharides.” They are larger and take longer to break down than simple sugars. Complex carbohydrates are found in many vegetables and whole grains. These are all foods that are good for you because the sugar occurs naturally and generally isn’t added by food manufacturers!

Sugar Tends to Make You Hungry

Remember those simple sugars? Well, they have a way of playing tricks on us. When we over-consume our sweet treats, our bodies react in different ways, and one of those ways can ultimately lead us to more hunger even after we’ve eaten. Because they are small, simple sugars break down very fast. When sugar is broken down, our blood sugar levels increase. An increase in blood sugar triggers our bodies to release insulin into our blood streams.

Insulin is a hormone used to regulate our blood sugar level. Regularly functioning insulin does a great job of this, but when we over-consume sugar, our body’s ability to tell insulin when to stop working is weakened. Thus, our blood sugar level falls to a low level, and our bodies react by sensing hunger. In short, too much sugar triggers a quick rise in insulin which ultimately lowers our blood sugar, making us feel hungry even AFTER we’d just eaten (Harvard School of Public Health, The Nutrition Source).

So if you’re hungry, don’t reach for something overly sugary like a candy bar, because the chances are that the candy bar will only make you feel more hungry! Instead, choose a snack with more complex sugars to keep your blood sugar more even.

Avoid Quitting Cold Turkey

A fairly common occurrence when it comes to making any change in life is letting our zeal and enthusiasm become an enemy. It’s exciting when we make the decision to make a positive shift in the way we normally do things. This is much the same with food, and particularly added sugar. Often times, we become so excited about our decision to rid ourselves of sugary sweets that we think the best thing to do is quit them altogether.

When we jump into diet changes abruptly, we face a daunting task. It requires eliminating the foods that we love to eat while beginning to consume things that we may have never tried before. The American Psychological Association recommends making smaller, gradual changes. Instead of going cold turkey on added sugars, turn those two packs of sugar in your morning coffee into one. Or try cutting back on consuming soda or juice throughout the day by replacing those sweet beverages with water or seltzer. But remember, always consult your doctor before making any dramatic shift to your everyday diet.

Enjoy In Moderation

I would be remiss to end this on a sour note (did you catch the pun?). Sugar is not necessarily the evil villain. And thankfully so. I would hate to have to face the task of eliminating sweets, especially my personal favorite, PB&J. But moderation is always the key.

If you want to know how much added (vs naturally occurring) sugar you’re consuming, look at the ingredients list on the nutrition label. If sugar in any of its forms (e.g., corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, etc.) is listed near the top of the list, then it’s a good indicator that there’s a lot of it in the food. Thankfully by 2018, all packaged food items will have new nutrition facts labels that tell you how much added sugars are in the packaged foods that you buy. This is a great move by the FDA to help consumers become healthier shoppers and eaters.

Pleasantries all. Happy eating!

Charlton Goodwin

Charlton Goodwin works with the Elevate Community Garden in the Saint Andrews area of Columbia, SC. He’s an advocate for wholesome food access and environmental sustainability, and LOVES food. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Health for Rural and Underserved Populations at Mercer University. He has previously earned his B.S. degree in Biological Sciences from Clemson University.

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