Though most people have only recently begun recognizing the addictive properties of sugar, this is old news to researchers. Sugars, whether natural or added, cause the same dopamine reaction in your brain as narcotics such as heroin and cocaine.
The result is cravings for sweets that are often both physical and emotional/psychological. And, like other addictive substances, your body builds resistance, meaning it takes more and more to get that same dopamine rush.
Different types of sugar have different types of impacts upon your body and your health. Like fat, your body needs some sugars to function properly and burn for energy. Health issues develop due to excessive intake of foods with added sugars.
Do they actually work, though? The answer is that it depends. Some work well and are extremely beneficial. Others work well when taken correctly; still others, not so much.
Simple Sugars: Glucose, Fructose, and Sucrose
Whole foods naturally contain sugars that your body breaks down in order to access the sugar and turn it into glucose, your body’s preferred source of energy. Your body processes added sugars, called simple carbohydrates, differently.
There are two types of simple carbohydrates.
- Monosaccharides: Contain a single sugar unit, either glucose or fructose. Glucose, also known as blood sugar, is the more important of the two. Your body either uses it for immediate energy or stores it for later use. Insulin helps your body use glucose and is your body’s response to elevated glucose levels. In contrast, fructose metabolizes in the liver, synthesizes like fat, and does not stimulate insulin to help regulate excess levels. Essentially, fructose behaves more like a fat than a carbohydrate.
- Disaccharides: Made up of glucose and fructose linked together, plus the removal of a single water molecule, to create sucrose. You find sucrose naturally in fruits and vegetables. It is also common table sugar, and is found in sugar cane and sugar beets. Your body breaks sucrose into its discrete parts – glucose and fructose – and processes both separately, as detailed above. The body uses glucose for energy and then pours the fructose into fat synthesis.
Identifying Added Sugars
Many processed foods are loaded with added sugars. This is no accident; food manufacturers know about sugar’s addictive properties. However, they often show up on food labels as something other than “sugar.” A good rule is to look on the ingredients list for items ending in “ose,” such as fructose, dextrose, maltose, and sucrose.
Common added sugars include:
- Cane juice or syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup (or other corn sweeteners)
- Malt syrup
- Nectars or fruit juice concentrate
None of these items are any better for you than traditional table sugar.
Do not go solely by the nutrition facts label, as FDA rules allow manufacturers to list “Sugars: 0 g” even on foods that do contain some amount of sugar. Also, look at where sugar appears on the ingredients list, as the manufacturer orders this list according to what percentage of the food includes each ingredient. In other words, if sugar is high on the list, that food likely contains significant added sugars.
The Problem with Added Sugars
Nutritionists call added sugars empty calories for a reason: they have no nutritional value. Yes, your body needs sugar, but whole foods supply all the sugar your body needs.
In addition, you predominantly find added sugars in processed foods, which often contain solid fats that cause a variety of chronic health problems, such as high cholesterol.
The dangers of a diet high in sugar are numerous. The first is weight gain, as these foods add significant calories. They also often take the place of whole foods high in nutritional value, those with the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you need for a healthy body.
People who follow a diet high in added sugars also typically have elevated triglyceride levels, leading to increased fatty tissue and even fat in the bloodstream. These patients have a higher risk of heart disease.
Finally, you can’t ignore dental health. A sugary diet damages teeth and increases the risk of cavities.
What Is an Acceptable Sugar Intake?
Numerous government organizations and medical professionals offer suggestions for daily sugar intake. Some groups label these in grams (the measurement used in packaging) and others as a percentage of total daily calories.
- Women: 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day, or 5 percent of daily calorie consumption
- Men: 38 grams (9 teaspoons) per day, or 5 percent of daily calorie consumption
On average, however, the typical American diet includes 82 grams, or over 19 teaspoons, of sugar each day.
7 Ways to Reduce Sugar Intake
- Avoid calorie-heavy beverages such as soda and energy drinks, or coffee loaded with sugar and creamer. Instead, drink water and other calorie-free beverages.
- Choose whole food snacks, such as fruits and vegetables, low-fat cheese and/or yogurt, and whole grain crackers instead of chips, candy, and cookies.
- If you drink fruit juice, look for 100 percent juice options with no added sugars, and limit intake to a few ounces instead of a large glass. An even better option: eat a piece of fruit instead.
- If you eat breakfast cereal, avoid frosted and other sugary options.
- Look for reduced-sugar condiments, jams, jellies, preserves, and syrups.
- When buying canned fruit, choose those packed in either water or juice instead of syrup. Before eating, drain and rinse the fruit.
- When it’s time for dessert, grab a piece of fruit or a cup of berries instead of baked goods, ice cream, or other sweets.