Sugar is like cholesterol: there’s the good and the bad. The good news is that it’s easy to distinguish between edible sugars and those to avoid. Here are two facts to remember:
- Sugar found in whole foods comes with vitamins, minerals, protein, phytochemicals and fiber. This naturally occurring sugar is a source of nutrition.
- When any type of sugar is added to foods during processing, cooking or at the table, it contains calories without any nutrients or fiber. Added sugar not only offers no benefits, it actually is a source of potential physical harm.
There are three basic carbohydrates in our diets — simple sugar, starch and fiber — all consist of sugar. Simple sugars, such as sucrose, fructose and lactose, only have one or two molecules of sugar. The “sugar high” and the crash that comes with it can be vividly witnessed in some children who are usually fed healthy foods and suddenly are given so-called “treats” at a party: ice cream, cake and candy, for example. Their bodies react to the simple sugars they are not accustomed to by creating an artificial burst of energy, followed by crankiness and fatigue. This is because simple sugars shoot quickly into the bloodstream and may cause spikes in blood sugar.
Starch and fiber are complex carbohydrates because they’re made from three to hundreds of sugar molecules. During digestion, simple sugars and complex starches break down into single molecules of glucose. Since they contain multiple molecules of sugar, starches take longer to digest, so they enter the bloodstream slowly.
One teaspoon of sugar has 16 calories, a teaspoon of honey has 21 calories and there are 136 calories— including 33 grams or 8 teaspoons of sugar—from a 12-ounce can of generic soda pop. These empty calories quickly add up to potential weight gain and an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Extra sugar also may cause an uptick in triglyceride levels, which contributes to cardiovascular disease.
We should try to eat complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. Guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend that women should consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar daily, while men should limit their added sugar to nine teaspoons. Remember that some healthy-sounding sweeteners, such as maple syrup, agave, brown sugar, molasses and honey are also added sugars.
Added sugar is found in virtually every type of processed food, which makes healthy eating challenging. One way to help eliminate added sugars from the diet is to check the ingredient listings of every packaged food item. For example, take a look at the ingredient listings of popular brands of so-called energy drinks and energy bars. Added sugar comes under the guise of maltose corn syrup, cane invert syrup, fructose, dextrose, glucose syrup, corn syrup—the list goes on and on.
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