The Whole Truth Answers: FAQs on Sugar
A few weeks back, we had asked you to share your most pertinent questions about sugar with us. And we promised we’ll answer the most-asked questions in detail. Well, here it is – our first ever community sourced FAQ 🙂
It’s been over a month since we started our deep-dive into demystifying sugar for you. And this is the crescendo moment for Sugar Month. It’s a mix of obvious questions, with hitherto nebulous answers.
What’s more is that every question in the blogpost has been answered by an expert we collaborated with – Ms. Dhriti Nayyar, PhD, Food Sciences.
So, here goes – The Whole Truth Answers your FAQs on Sugar.
Q1: Which type of sugar is okay to consume?
Simply put, sugar is soluble carbohydrate that imparts a sweet taste on our tongue. In general, sugar is considered to be sucrose or table sugar. However, there are several different kinds of sugars naturally occurring in our food and added during the process of cooking. Each sugar has a different chemical structure, even though the per gram calorific value is the same. The difference in the structure results in differences in how these sugars are processed in our bodies and which pathways they take to get consumed as energy. All the isolated natural sugars used in processed are found in whole fruits, vegetables, and grains. However, it is the overuse and concentrated forms of these natural sugars in the processed foods that makes them less healthy to consume.
Without digging too deep, consume sugars as a part of their whole foods, for eg. fruits and vegetables. Of course, in moderation – no binging on 6 mangoes a day! However, the kind of sugars we should be away from are derived from foods that provide little to no nutrition, eg. aerated beverages, certain sweet preparations, fruit juices with no fiber.
Q2: What about Fruits?
If you think only in terms of sugar, fruits contain a significant amount of fructose and some other sugars. However, we must expand our thinking and not consider fruits a mere source of sugar. Along with fructose, fruits also contain fiber that help with the slow release of sugars in our body and aid satiety. To add to this, daily intake of fruits ensures intake of essential micronutrients, antioxidants and other phytonutrients. It’s 100% okay to consume in moderation for a healthy individual.
Disclaimer: not applicable to fruit juices, even the fresh homemade ones!
Q3: Are some sugars better for me than others? How should I check?
The most common sugars that we typically consume are (in no particular order):
- Lactose (if you consume dairy)
Fructose and glucose are monosaccharides i.e. just one molecule whereas sucrose and lactose are disaccharides i.e. made of two difference monosaccharides. Sucrose is further broken down into glucose and fructose whereas lactose is broken down into glucose and galactose during digestion.
Depending on the type of sugar, the chemical structure, sweetness profile, absorption pathway and subsequent effects on our body differ. For example, glucose is directly absorbed in your blood stream from your small intestine, but fructose is processed in the liver where it is converted to glucose, lactate and glycogen with a very little amount getting converted to plasma triglycerides.
Today, there are several different forms of sugars that are isolated from foodstuffs and then added in processed foods. These serve several functions in the food such as improving taste, texture, color, and shelf life of the product. If you read the back of your nutrition label, you will find an array of ingredients added for sweetness (instead of sucrose/sugar). These include honey, jaggery, brown sugar, organic cane sugar (sugar), sugar alcohols, modified carbohydrates and much more.
Although one would want to think that any “natural” form of sugar is okay to consume and any chemically driven sugar is not okay, that is not the case. Our brains recognize chemical structures and not the source or the way they were processed. The real issue today is that various different forms and types of sugars or modified carbs are in our food. Overconsumption of any of the natural and processed sugars will affect our body in some way, depending on the type and amount of dosage.
Q4: What’s the connection between sugar and insulin?
Insulin is a hormone created by our body to achieve multiple metabolic functions. One of the most crucial functions of insulin is to regulate our blood glucose levels. Once we consume our food, our blood glucose levels rise as digestion progresses and breaks down carbohydrates to simple sugars. This is a signal for our pancreas to release insulin, which then regulates the blood sugar levels by storing the sugar for later use. Our blood sugar is absorbed by our muscle, red blood cells and fat cells in response to insulin, bringing our blood glucose levels to acceptable or normal range.
In summary, insulin is like our savior because we do not want our blood sugar levels to be spiked for long!
Q5: What makes sugar so addictive? What makes the body crave it?
Our brain runs on glucose!
Evolutionarily speaking, our brain is trained to forage for and store sugar so that we never have depleted levels for proper functioning. This very trait for survival has become somewhat detrimental to our health due to the ready access to sugar-laden foods around us.
From a biochemistry standpoint, sugar intake releases dopamine and other neurotransmitters that have shown to activate our opiate receptors in our brain and affect our “reward” behavior. In simpler words, every time we consume sugar (especially in excessive amounts), we are signaling our brain to release neurotransmitters that make us feel good/happy while building tolerance towards sugar – similar to other drugs.
I wouldn’t pitch sugar and cocaine together like several attention-hungry headlines do. However, multiple studies, especially in rats, have shown that we can develop food addiction (if not drug addiction) due to frequent and excessive intake of sugar through our diet. Moreover, misinformation about several fad diets and the lack of knowledge of nutrition has led to people trying several harmful “instant-result” tricks to lose body weight. Such unregulated interventions may end up resulting in negative impact on the body, one of them being increased sugar cravings!
Q6: What can we do about sugar cravings? Are there other foods which can curb sugar cravings and be satiating as well?
If you have very frequent sugar cravings spread throughout the month, your body may be trying to signal something to you. From experiencing unmanageable stress or under nourishing yourself, there can be several triggers for sugar cravings. Thankfully, there are some things you can do address these random sugar cravings:
- Have whole fruits: not juice, but the entire fruit with its fiber intact!
- Consume 2-3 dates: Dried dates have natural sugar present in them (like fresh fruits), but they also have enough fiber to make sure you don’t get a terrible sugar spike.
- Did you skip your meal? Consume a meal including protein, fats, and carbohydrate. Not too much or too less of it, but in the correct proportion!
Q7: How much added sugar is it okay to consume per day?
The World Health Organization recommends a maximum of 5-10 teaspoon (25-50g on a 2000 Kcal diet) of free or added sugars. These sugars can come from any form or type of added ‘sugar’ in your processed foods or from sugars you may add in your food while cooking. So, if you had a can of coke today, you already consumed all the sugar you should be consuming that day!
Q8: Is it good to eliminate sugar completely from your diet?
Although you don’t have to be that extreme in your approach, it is definitely good to work towards eliminating free/added sugars from our diet. Also, we must understand the difference between consuming isolated & concentrated simple sugars versus consuming complex carbohydrates. Many instant approaches towards weight loss and “healthy” fad diets demonize carbohydrates in general. But they are an essential requirement of our macros and fulfill many critical bodily functions.
Q9: What is more damaging to health – sugar or fats?
Neither! The answer to this question totally depends on the type, form and amount of sugar or fat you are consuming. Long story short, the health benefits as well as negative impact, both are dependent on the dosage of the macronutrient. In isolation, sugar may have worse effects than fats just because our food system today is filled with several different types of isolate and concentrated sugars. However, if we repeatedly consume saturated fats in high doses, that will have ill-effects in our bodies as well.
The dose makes the same compound the medicine or the poison!
Q10: How effective is a no sugar diet?
A no added/free sugar diet may have several benefits associated with health. For starters, you are liberating your mind with the sugar induced dopamine dependency. No sugar –> no dopamine release due to sugar –> no “reward” feedback to the brain –> lesser changes of food related sugar “addiction.” A no added sugar diet also helps you have lesser spikes in your blood glucose levels, thus regulating insulin levels better than if you were to overdose on sugar. Moreover, it’s much easier to manage your weight and health on a no sugar diet, thus reducing the risk of many lifestyle related diseases.
However, for most of the people it is extremely difficult to achieve a no added sugar diet and maintain this kind of diet sustainably. This also deprives us of several foods that are culturally a part of our food system. Several people find it difficult, but still try to refrain from sweets altogether, only to binge or overdo them later. A better approach could be to have a healthy relationship with sugar rather than demonizing it completely. A low added sugar diet has very similar benefits to a no added sugar diet, and is easier to maintain. This way you are depriving yourself from secretly craving the ‘forbidden fruit. The only key here is to understand how many hidden sugars you may be eating, in case your diet is one that’s high on ultra-processed or junk foods.
Q11: Would my body be able to find out the difference between sugars found naturally from fruits and added sugar, eg. Cereal?
Our body cannot find the differences between two same compounds (for eg glucose) even if they may hail from two different sources. However, this does not mean it is okay to consume 2 tsp of refined sugar versus 2 dates. Although eventually our body will breakdown all complex sugars to simple sugars, the process of breakdown and the fiber bound sugars in fruits along with vitamins, antioxidants and other bioactives make fruits a healthier alternative to foods that may have readily available refine sugars.
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