Sugar is everywhere in our diet. It sneaks into things you may not even realize, including healthy snacks and beverages like juices, smoothies, yogurts, and of course, many flavorful and fancy coffee and tea beverages. While sugar in a small moderation can be okay, too much sugar can wreak havoc on our bodies, skin, gut, and brain. Increased sugar intake can have a negative impact on health and can contribute to diabetes, hypertension, and liver and heart disease.
What Happens When You Eat Sugar?
It is important to understand the process by which our body metabolizes sugar and the effects it has on our organs and blood sugar. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. When you eat sugar, your body has two choices of what to do with it: use it for energy or convert it to fat that is stored in your fat cells. Which option your body chooses can depend a lot on genetics, metabolism, what time of day you’re eating, and the type of sugar consumed.
Once you’ve gobbled down that Cronut that you’ve patiently waited in line for, your bloodstream becomes flooded with sugar, and your pancreas then produces and releases the hormone insulin. Insulin helps regulate the amount of sugar in our blood by helping remove the glucose so it can be stored in your muscles, liver, and fat cells. The more sugar we consume, the more insulin is produced to regulate this imbalance, which can place a huge stress on our bodies and eventually cause inflammation-related health issues, obesity, diabetes, cancers, and other diseases.
Health and Wellness Coach Emily Whipple of Aspen Elevated Health, based in Aspen, Colorado states, “Sadly, sugar is not our friend when it comes to our health and overall wellness. Even in moderation we need to be careful. We are seeing an influx in published sugar studies revealing how harmful this addictive carbohydrate is on our entire bodies. The more educated we can become on sugar, the better choices we can make for our own bodies.”
How Can You Make Smarter Choices When It Comes to Sugar?
Below, Whipple has rounded up 5 key relevant sugar tidbits to keep you educated, plus some advice on ways to help you stave off that sweet-tooth craving and keep you satisfied, healthy, and happy without completely avoiding sugars so you don’t have to live your life feeling deprived.
1. Choose Natural Sugars Whenever Possible
If you’re craving a sweet treat, Whipple’s advice is to try to choose something with natural sugar as opposed to processed and refined sugar. Natural sugars are the kind that exist naturally in a food, such as fruit, honey, maple syrup, and even some dairy. Natural sugar is digested more slowly in your body, which helps you feel full for longer and keeps your metabolism stable.
Alternatively, refined sugar, or sucrose—which can be found in pastries, candy, soda, and packaged desserts—is processed and extracted from sugarcane or sugar beets. The body breaks down refined sugar more rapidly than natural sugars, which causes insulin and blood sugar levels to drastically spike. This quick digestion often leaves a lingering feeling of hunger even after you’ve eaten your meal, regardless of how much you ate.
2. Yes, Fruit Is Healthy, but Still High in Sugar
Generally, fruits are a healthy snack; they are full of essential fiber, minerals, and vitamins. But certain fruits are better for you than others when it comes to sugar content. Sugar in fruit is measured by the effect it has on your blood sugar, or your blood glucose levels. This measurement, called the Glycemic Index (GI) is a numerical unit describing how much your blood sugar levels will rise by consuming certain foods, based on a scale from 0 to 100. Foods with a higher GI will be harder for your body to process as compared to foods with a lower GI. Whipple recommends selecting fruit with lower GI values such as: grapefruits, cherries, pears, berries, apples, citrus, and plums.
3. Sugar Decreases Your Energy and Zaps Your Brain Power
If you tend to feel fatigued after lunch, it could be caused by your diet, especially if you’re eating foods that are loaded with sugars. There is a lot of evidence to support how your energy levels are affected throughout the day depending on what you eat. If you’re someone who typically reaches into the office candy bowl or sips on a Frappuccino to get you through that conference call, you’ve probably experienced some sort of “sugar high,” followed by a “sugar crash.”
Related Reading: 5 Ways to Boost Your Energy Without Caffeine
Your body’s automatic response is to produce enough insulin to help process the sugars you’ve just consumed. The more sugar you consume, the harder your body has to work, which can leave you feeling tired and sluggish. Eating excess sugar has also been linked to accelerating the aging process of your brain, causing deficiencies in memory and overall cognitive health. Whenever possible, Whipple suggests to try to avoid reaching for sugary treats, especially when you’re hungry.
4. Sugar Is Making Us Gain Weight
Whipple warns, “The facts are simple. When we consume too much sugar, we end up eating too many calories, which can result in weight gain and more of that pesky, unwanted flab. Foods that contain more sugar are typically higher in calories and carbohydrates, which can have a negative effect on your waistline.”
Often times sugary treats contain little to no protein or fiber, causing you to keep eating more without ever feeling full—a dangerous cycle that leads to consuming extra calories and eventually gaining more weight. When we consume more calories than we need, all the extra unused calories get stored as fat.
5. Food Labels Can Help Guide Us When It Comes to Consuming Sugar
Due to our natural biology, men and women have slightly different recommendations for the amount of sugar they should be consuming per day. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), women should have no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day and no more than 9 teaspoons for men. The AHA also suggests that less than five percent of your diet should come from the sweet treats, which comes to about 25 grams based on a daily 2,000 calorie diet.
Related Reading: How to Read & Understand a Nutrition Label
Fun fact: one teaspoon of sugar equals about 4 grams of sugar, which is important to remember as you’re reading food labels. For example, one Chobani blueberry flavored Greek yogurt has 14 grams of sugar per serving, which is 3.5 teaspoons of sugar in just one small container. If you’re a woman, that’s already more than half of your daily recommended serving!
More Tips on Being Sugar Smart
Since you probably don’t have the willpower of Superman or Superwoman to avoid sugar altogether, Whipple outlines a few other pro tips on how to consume sugar and naturally cut down on unnecessary and unwanted sugars:
- Don’t eat sugar on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning, or before bed. Rather, consume a little sugar after you’ve had a meal or snack with fat and protein to help stabilize your intake of sugar and avoid that sugar high and sugar crash.
- Eat sugar with a combination of fat and protein, such as an apple with nut butter. When you pair sugar with fat and protein, your body metabolizes the sugar more slowly, which reduces that spike in blood sugar and prevents overproduction of insulin.
- Swap out those sugar-laced sodas, energy drinks, juices, and sweetened teas for unsweetened herbal teas, water with lemon, or flavored seltzers. Make sure to check the seltzer label for no added sugars. Whipple’s favorite go-to seltzers are Spindrift—especially the grapefruit flavor.
Spindrift, Grapefruit Flavored, $17.07 (24-pack) on Amazon
This citrusy sparkling water is refreshing and sugar-free.
- If you’re a yogurt person, try having full-fat plain yogurt and add fresh or frozen berries as your sweetener instead of buying the flavored, sugar-loaded yogurts. Some yogurts have a whopping 15 grams of added sugar! Plus you’ll be more satiated by eating full-fat, nutritious yogurt.
- When that sugar craving hits, grab a square or two of dark chocolate rather than a granola bar. Dark chocolate that has 72 percent or above of cocoa content will have less sugar and greater health benefits such as reducing inflammation. Dark chocolate also has higher level of antioxidants, magnesium, zinc, and iron. Try to buy dark chocolate that does not have sugar written as the first ingredient. For one of the most unique chocolate bars out there, try Hu.
Hu Chocolate Bars, $25.00 (4-pack) on Amazon
You won't find any refined sugar in these delicious dark chocolate bars.
- Salad dressings are a sneaky place for hidden sugars. Use olive oil and vinegar in place of bottled, sweet salad dressings.
- For you cereal lovers, look for the brands with under 4 grams of sugar per serving. One of Whipple’s favorite brands is Love Grown. Their ancient grains granola is delicious and also low in sugar.
Love Grown Pumpkin Cashew Granola, $38.76 (6-pack) on Amazon
Enjoy guilt-free snacking with these ancient grain granola clusters.
- On nights out, avoid alcoholic beverages that are sweetened with soda, juice, honey, sugar, or agave. Try a vodka or tequila soda, with lemon, lime, or even orange for a hint of refreshing, natural sweetness.
- Grocery stores can either be our best friends or that little devil sitting on our shoulders. Whipple suggests using the “70/30 rule:” 70 percent of your shopping should come from the perimeter of the grocery store where you’ll find all the fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats; then the remaining 30 percent can be your cooking ingredients, whole grains, and healthy snacks.
Header image courtesy of Tara Moore/Getty Images