We all have heard about how bad sugar is for you. Some people even go so far as to claim it is toxic or call it a poison.
Doesn’t it occur naturally in foods that are great for you?
How can something be called a superfood because it contains so many compounds that are beneficial for the human body and also be a source of toxic sugar?
That does not make much sense. So, maybe it is better to explain that there are sources of sugar that are just fine to consume, and other sources and types of sugar that have the potential to harm the body.
Types of Sugar found in nature.
You need natural sources of sugar to survive. It is a type of carbohydrate that the body metabolizes quickly. The starches and sugars in plants and dairy are broken down so your cells can use them for energy, to make proteins, or store them for the future.
Simple sugars are made up of one molecule. They include glucose and fructose which are found in fruit, honey, and some vegetables. Your brain and red blood cells only use glucose as energy. Galactose is another simple sugar that is a component of the sugar found in dairy products.
Compound sugars are made up of two molecules of simple sugars. Sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose and is found in fruits, vegetables, and plants. Sucrose is the compound extracted to create granulated sugar, aka table sugar or white sugar.
Lactose is a combination of glucose and galactose. It is found in milk and some dairy products. Maltose is two molecules of glucose. It only occurs when long chains of sugars are broken down, such as when you digest or cook starches. It is also created in the process of making beer and whiskey.
When sugar occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, and dairy it is eaten with all the other nutrients that are good for you, and fiber that helps slow the rate of digestion. This means that in addition to the benefit of the nutrients, your blood sugar levels do not spike and the sugar is less likely to be stored as fat when consuming sugar in plants and dairy form.
When is sugar bad for you?
Sugar becomes harmful when you consume too much of it, and when you consume processed, refined, added sugars.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that less than 10% of your daily calories be from added sugar. You will gain additional health benefits by keeping added sugars below 5%, which is approximately 6 teaspoons per day for an adult.
You can easily reach the 6 teaspoon limit by lunchtime if you are not careful. Added sugar is found in most processed foods, from the obvious sweets and soda to juice, cereal, crackers, yogurt, protein bars, peanut butter, dried fruit, salad dressing, ketchup, and mayonnaise. As you can see, there are many foods you would not consider a sweet food that contribute to your added sugar intake.
When you regularly go over the recommended amount, you are increasing your odds of harming your health. Sugar intake has been linked to many health conditions. Here are a few.
Poor dental health causing cavities and gingivitis
Type 2 diabetes
High blood pressure
Reduced immune function
Chronic inflammation, which may lead to joint pain or inflammatory diseases
In addition to all these conditions, added sugar is addictive, it heightens your stress response, and it greatly affects your mood causing nervousness, irritability, and anxiousness. Some studies have even linked higher sugar intake to a greater risk of depression.
Are any other types of added sugar better for you?
You may have heard various claims about maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, agave, or molasses being better for you than table sugar. Like white sugar, they are also made up of varying amounts of sucrose, glucose, and fructose. Some of them are metabolized slower than table sugar, so your blood sugar level won’t spike as much. They are also less processed and closer to their natural form, so they retain other nutrients that are good for you. However, no matter what advantages they have over white sugar, they still are primarily made up of sugars and need to be consumed in very limited quantities.
Tips to switch to natural, nutrient-dense sweet foods.
Instead of adding sugar or honey to cereal or yogurt, try using fruit instead. Spices and extracts are also great options to add flavor and sweet taste. Try vanilla or almond extract (make sure you are not using imitation extracts), or cinnamon or ginger. Replacing sugars with fruit, spices, and extracts not only reduces your added sugars, but they also bring additional health benefits.
Slowly reduce the amount of sugar that you add to foods and drinks or use spices and extracts instead.
Drink water when you want something sweet. Dehydration can be misinterpreted as a desire for sweets and is a common cause of sugar cravings.
Read ingredient lists and begin using foods that have fewer added sugars. Remember, when an ingredient is high on the list there is going to be a lot of it in the food. Added sugars have many names. Here is the link to our list of 56 names of sugar to look for.
At first, natural, nutrient-dense sweet foods will not taste as sweet as foods with added sugar. However, after a few months of only eating naturally sweet food, your body and mind will adjust, and you will find that these foods taste sweeter. When you do eventually taste food with added sugar, it may seem far too sweet!
Getting your daily added sugar intake below the recommended 6 teaspoons a day may seem impossible, but it can be done. When you are tempted to splurge, remember that the effect of sugar on your body and health depends on the source. Added sugar provides no nutritional value and brings poor health. Try making one change at a time and, eventually, you can reach your goal. To help you get started, we have included a list of naturally sweet foods and a few recipes below. If you need help managing your nutrition or creating a plan to reduce sugar, our Functional Nutrition and Lifestyle Practitioners would love to help you make true transformational changes in your life.
Naturally sweet foods:
Fruit: berries, melons, mango, banana, apple, apricot, peach, plum, pear, kiwi, or papaya
Vegetables: sweet potatoes, yams, beets, winter squash
Nuts: cashew, pistachio, macadamia, coconut, and pecan
Spices: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg
Extracts: vanilla, almond, hazelnut
Nutrient-Rich Sweet Recipes:
If you are looking for recipes to spark your appetite, here are a few suggestions. We have included the ingredients below, just click on the title to get the full recipe.
20 Medjool dates, seeded and halved
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup creamy almond butter
1/3 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp. natural cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/3 cup toasted almonds, well chopped
3/4 cup peeled and finely shredded carrot (~1-2 carrots as recipe is written)
1 cup packed pitted Medjool dates (measured after pits are removed)
1 ¾ cups raw walnuts (or sub another nut, such as pecans or cashews)
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp sea salt
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 pinch ground nutmeg
4-6 Tbsp coconut flour (or almond flour)
1/4 cup raisins (optional or sub other unsweetened dried fruit)
1 or 2 Sweet potatoes
Spices are optional. Top with cinnamon to make it feel like a dessert, or paprika and cayenne pepper to spice it up.
1 large banana
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1 cup ice
2 tbsp. peanut butter (preferably natural with no added sugar)
1/8 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 cup frozen chopped mango
3/4 cup frozen strawberries
3/4 cup frozen peaches
1/2 of 1 medium banana, frozen
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
Functional Nutrition Lifestyle Therapist, Lifestyle Educator
Brittany’s passion is to help others become the healthiest and happiest versions of themselves. Brittany has a special gift of connecting with people and a unique ability to help guide individuals on their personal health and wellness journey.