There is so much confusion around sugar. First, the differences between artificial, novel, and refined sugar are confusing. Second, what should we avoid, limit, or include in our typical eating patterns? Today we’re going to talk about the different types of sugar and what they can do to our health, which to prioritize, and how to start reducing your sugar intake.
What’s the Difference Between Sugar, Natural Sugar, and Artificial Sugar?
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that our bodies need for energy. The term sugar encompasses all different types of simple sugars which include:
Natural sugars pre-exist in foods. These include things like:
- maple syrup
- starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and pumpkin.
The good thing about these sugars is that they coexist with other nutrients such as fiber, which you find in your fruits and vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. For instance, maple syrup is a source of sugar but it also contains zinc, manganese, and iron and also a variety of antioxidants.
Added sugars are refined sugars added to foods to increase their sweetness. This is what you find in your baked goods, flavored yogurts, milk, cookies, crackers, cereals, and snack foods. Added sugars are really what you should be watching out for as this is the main source of excessive sugar in our diets.
What’s the Difference Between Artificial and Novel Sugars?
Artificial sugars include aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), saccharin, and acesulfame potassium (Sweet One). These are created from chemicals in a laboratory and are super sweet. They are found in everything from diet soda and sugar-free candy to yogurts and cereals. Although these are technically safe to consume, I would still try to cut back on these for the following reasons.
- First, these sweeteners are insanely sweet and they can enhance your cravings and taste for sweet things.
- Second, multiple studies have linked artificial sugars to the development of type two diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, headaches, inflammation, and cancer.
- Third, studies have also shown that some of these sugars can disrupt and alter your gut microbiome and metabolism.
Novel sugars are sugars that are derived from natural sources like plants. They are less processed than artificial and not as sweet. These include sweeteners like monk fruit, stevia, allulose, and tagatose.
Although these sweeteners are more natural than their artificial counterparts, they can still be harmful. For instance, a 2019 study found that stevia altered the gut microbiome and lowered the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut. But on the other hand, older studies have shown that stevia has actually helped lower insulin and blood sugar levels and can help manage cholesterol.
Monkfruit is another novel sugar. It hasn’t been researched extensively. In fact, a panel of scientists from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that there was not enough conclusive evidence to determine if monk fruit was safe as a food additive.
What Sugar Should We Eat?
Based on the research, I believe natural sugars should be your main source of sugar. They’re less processed, they have some nutritional benefits, and are usually included with other foods that can help us reach a nutrient-dense diet. All sugars should be in small quantities, but I would prioritize natural over others.
Is It Possible To Eat Sugar In Moderation?
Absolutely. You do not have to cut all sugar out of your life. If you’re worried about your health or managing chronic inflammation, I actually encourage moderate intake, because the more you restrict the more likely you are to binge on those forbidden foods.
So here are my top five tips to help you include sugar in a healthy way.
Focus on complex carbohydrates
Just because sugar is a carbohydrate doesn’t mean you have to eliminate all carbs. Focus on eating complex carbohydrates, rather than simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest so they won’t spike your blood sugar. Additionally, complex carbohydrates have fiber which helps slow down digestion and can even help lower your cholesterol levels. They’re also rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Complex carbs are found in unprocessed foods like whole grains, brown rice, quinoa, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
Limit your simple carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates are found in processed foods like soda, baked goods, cereals, fruit juices, and packaged cookies and crackers. Eating simple carbohydrates spikes your blood sugar and they’re not as filling as those amazing complex carbohydrate-rich foods because they lack fiber. Start cutting down your simple carbs or removing one food item per day. For instance, if you’re going to snack on a packaged cookie, pick one day out of the week to have a banana or homemade breakfast cookie instead. As you achieve that goal increase it to two days, and then three days, and then so on.
Try to avoid artificial sugars and novel sugars
Artificial and novel sugars have minimal to no calories, but may have unintended consequences for your gut and overall health. If you have an addiction to sweet things, try to wean yourself off of these foods slowly. For instance, if you drink a can of diet soda every day, try to cut it down by one each week until you are at zero.
Read nutrition labels
You need to read nutrition labels to find hidden sources of added sugar. Added sugars are in almost everything. Condiments, sauces, yogurts, ready-to-eat cereals, and even canned foods. Updated nutrition labels include a line item for added sugars and you want this number to be as low as possible. If the food doesn’t have a label, read the ingredients. Sugar can be listed as cane sugar juice, maltose, dextrose, rice syrup, high fructose, corn syrup, and brown rice syrup. Ingredient labels are listed by weight if sugar is one of the first ingredients and you will know that food has a lot of sugar in it.
Include healthy fats to kick sugar cravings
Many of us crave sugar. Cravings can come from drops in blood sugar, not getting a good night’s sleep, or not eating enough satiating foods like healthy fats. If you feel a craving coming on, opt for something with some fat in it like avocado on whole wheat bread, or even a handful of nuts or a spoonful of MCT oil. Seriously, higher-fat foods help keep your blood glucose stable and can curb those intense cravings.
Here’s the bottom line. You can eat a balanced diet with sugar, but be mindful of what and how much you’re eating. It’s important to manage inflammation and the onset of other chronic diseases. If you need more help managing your diet, please reach out to me.