Is any amount of sugar OK? Are all sweeteners created equal? We bring you the answers to these and more cloying questions.
I was the last one to arrive at dinner. The three friends already seated had ordered a baguette with butter to tide them over as they waited to order their meals. I came hungry, too, but when I laid eyes on the crusty white bread before me, all I could see was a pile of sugar—an image that made it easy for me to ignore the bread while I waited to order my dinner.
Having been researching sugar for this article—where it hides, how our bodies make use of it, which kinds are best and worst—my brain was primed to see foods as a composition of smaller parts. In the case of white bread, I only saw glucose. And I was grateful.
Like everyone, I have my vices and I enjoy them. I find great pleasure in cooking and eating. I love sweets. Still, I aim to consume food conscientiously. This means making some tradeoffs. For my portion of sugar, I’d rather have a well-made chocolate dessert than a couple slices of white bread as an appetizer, an occasional whiskey instead of a daily soda, homemade pasta for dinner rather than biscuits and gravy (white flour bread smothered in white flour sauce) for breakfast. And I’d rather have sugar I know about than stealthily sweetened processed food. I’ll have my Caesar salad without the added sugar, thank you.
Once you know what to look for (keep reading), you’ll be amazed at how prevalent sugar is in our food system. It shows up in shocking quantities in a wide range of surprising and not-so-surprising foods, from salad dressings to soda.
Yes, refined sugar is bad for us. Yes, it is addictive and can be toxic. But we are human, and as such, we are evolutionarily drawn to the calorie-dense prize that is sweet stuff. Aside from those of us willing to drastically monitor our diets, most of us are going to consume sugar sometimes. A bit of education can help us be smarter about when and how to do so.
Sugar comes in many forms: Glucose is the fuel our bodies’ cells burn. While glucose is vital and necessary for us to survive, it disrupts blood sugar balance when we consume too much of it in the form of added sugars, leading to a range of health maladies. Table sugar (sucrose) is part glucose, part fructose. Fructose, the sugar in fruit and in high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is sweeter than glucose and presents an entirely different set of problems in our bodies. Maltose, the sugar in beer, is two parts glucose. Milk sugar, or lactose, is part glucose, part galactose. Dextrose is glucose that comes from plants like corn and grapes.
Nearly all nonmeat foods—including vegetables, legumes, breads and whole grains—contain natural sugars, but our bodies process them differently. The carbohydrates in vegetables, legumes and whole grains are broken apart and used slowly and efficiently by the body. Starches such as bread, pasta, corn and potatoes are composed of chains of sugars that break down quickly, releasing their glucose particles into the bloodstream. Some do this faster than others. White bread becomes sugar in our blood almost as quickly as pure glucose.
The speed with which our bodies turn different foods into glucose (blood sugar) is ranked according to the glycemic index (GI), with 100 being pure glucose and having the most rapid effect on blood sugar. Wonder bread has a GI of 73; whole wheat berries, 41; an apple, 39; peanuts, 14. (See Making Sense of the Glycemic Index.)
“Every molecule of energy that enters your body in the form of food is assigned to be either burned or stored,” writes Mark Bittman in his recent book VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00. When you ingest more glucose than your body immediately needs, it is converted into fat to be stored. If you ingest more glucose before that fat is burned as fuel, that fat is stored indefinitely.
The hormone that manages this process is insulin. When glucose is present in our bloodstream, insulin levels spike to help manage our use of it in various body tissues. Once the glucose has been used or stored as fat, our insulin levels dip, signaling us to eat again. If most of what we eat is quickly digestible carbohydrates, the roller coaster never ends. When we flood our bodies with a rush of glucose in the form of simple carbohydrates or pure sugar, our bodies release more and more insulin to help convert it into storable fat. Over time, our cells can become resistant to the insulin, which leads to a host of ills known collectively as metabolic syndrome. The consequences include everything from high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity to asthma, dementia and cancer.
Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, says the process of getting fat is driven more by quality than by quantity. “When insulin levels are elevated, we accumulate fat in our fat tissue; when these levels fall, we liberate fat from the fat tissue and burn it for fuel. Insulin levels are determined by the carbohydrates we eat. The more carbohydrates we eat, and the easier they are to digest and the sweeter they are, the more insulin we will ultimately secrete, meaning that the level of it in our bloodstream is greater and so is the fat we retain in our fat cells.”
Easily digestible carbohydrate-rich foods include highly refined flour and grains, starchy vegetables and sugars, and liquid carbs such as beer, fruit juice and soda, which are among the worst offenders for driving up insulin levels. “These carbohydrates literally make us fat, and by driving us to accumulate fat, they make us hungrier and they make us sedentary,” Taubes says. (For more about how a diet rich in easily digestible carbohydrates robs us of energy, check out chapter three of Why We Get Fat.)
When it comes to processing sugars in our bodies, fructose appears to be especially problematic. Once glucose enters the body’s cells, hunger signals eventually turn off (the dip in the spike-and-dip insulin roller coaster). Fructose doesn’t work this way. It is transported directly to the liver to be metabolized. When large amounts are consumed, fructose is mostly turned into the notorious fats known as triglycerides, which raise the risk of fatal heart disease, among various other problems.
All fruits contain fructose, but the fructose in fruit is likely not the problem. “Nobody is or should be worried about the fructose in fruit, because fruits do not have all that much, and whatever fructose they do have is accompanied by fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other good things,” writes nutrition expert Marion Nestle in Why Calories Count. “Added fructose is another matter. Much fructose is consumed in sweetened beverages—fruit juices, fruit drinks and sodas. These now account for more than 20 percent of daily calories among Americans, which is why advice to ‘stop drinking your calories’ makes good sense.”
Liquid food does not seem to signal the end to hunger in the same way that solid food does, according to Nestle. Aviva Romm, herbalist and M.D., suggests replacing fruit juices with water, lemon water or herbal tea. Try peppermint, spearmint, chamomile, lemon balm, hibiscus, rose hips and ginger teas, all of which are perfectly safe for children, too.
Consuming sugar triggers a response in the brain’s so-called “reward center” in the same manner that cocaine, alcohol, nicotine and other addictive substances do. It is quite literally like a drug. The foods that cause the problems make us crave more of the foods that cause the problems. This cycle of addiction can be broken, but it requires an initial period of fighting cravings followed by a new way of healthier eating. (For more on how to fight sugar cravings and manage withdrawal, check out Sugar Detox.)
In the typical American diet, about half or more calories are derived from carbs—many of them the simple, quick-burning variety—so it’s no less than revolutionary to attempt to eat a different way. The three major macronutrients that make up our diet are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. If we reduce simple carbohydrates from our diets, we must increase other components to make up for it. To limit quick-burning carbs, we’ll need to eat proteins, fats and slow-burning carbohydrates: meat, eggs and dairy; vegetables and legumes; minimally processed whole grains and plenty of high-quality fats. (Check out our next issue to learn more about the fats you should be eating.)
Fighting sugar cravings is no small feat, but with better-regulated blood sugar, you may eventually have a more sustained and sustainable level of energy and feel naturally more active.
To help curb sugar addiction, try replacing fruit juices with lemon water; beer and other sweet alcoholic beverages with dry red wine; soda with unsweetened tea. Eat high-protein meals throughout the day, especially at breakfast. Stock your kitchen, office and purse with high-protein snacks for sustaining energy (see “High-Protein Snacks for Energy” later in the article.)
Also eat plenty of high-quality fats such as those found in avocados, coconuts, nuts, olives and sustainably raised meats. Fats are good for you, and they help you feel full. If you’re craving fruit, enjoy it whole. Bananas, berries, strawberries, kiwi and citrus contain less than half their calories in fructose, and are especially good choices. Bananas, kiwi, pineapples and plums also contain serotonin, which can help the brain fight cravings.
To avoid loading your shopping cart with sugar, carefully read labels. Sugar is almost never listed as “sugar” on processed food packaging. Here are your other watch words, courtesy of the Harvard School of Public Health: agave nectar, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose and syrup.
If you are trying to cut out refined carbs while eating in restaurants, it’s easiest to ask for salad or vegetables in place of white bread and to think carefully about where sugar and white flour might be hiding: soup (as a thickener), gravy, sweet sauces and dressings.
When you retrain your palate, you will eventually be able to taste sweetness where you may not have noticed it before—in ranch dressing, crackers and the like. Lightly sweetened foods will begin to taste great. The natural sweetness in fruit may become immensely satisfying. And you’ll enjoy the desserts you do grant yourself like never before.
These protein-rich foods offer satiety and a boost of energy without sugar and sweeteners.
• Cottage cheese
• Plain yogurt
• “Natural” cheese
• Unsweetened nut butters
• Dried edamame
• Chia seeds soaked in water
• Soy nuts
• Hard-boiled eggs
• Roasted pumpkin and squash seeds
• Cured meats (jerky, salami, etc.)
• Hummus with veggies
• Bean dip with veggies
Food editor Tabitha Alterman felt like a new person after cutting out refined flour and sugar for just three days. She is currently researching her forthcoming cookbook about healthy, whole-grain baking.
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