There are a lot of mixed messages on sugars and how they affect our health. This article will discuss what sugar is, the different kinds of sugars, and how they affect our health.
What is Sugar?
To really dive into the healthfulness of sugar, we first need to understand what sugar is. Sugar is a type of simple carbohydrate. Monosaccharides are the simplest forms of sugar. This means that our bodies don’t need to do any work to digest them. Disaccharides are slightly more complex and formed by a link of two monosaccharides.
Types of monosaccharides:
- Glucose – our body’s main source of energy and found in vegetables, legumes, and complex carbs
- Fructose – found in fruit, honey, and added to products (like sugar-sweetened beverages)
- Galactose – a component of lactose, found in milk
Types of disaccharides:
- Sucrose – aka ‘table sugar’; glucose + fructose
- Lactose – aka ‘milk sugar’; glucose + galactose
- Maltose – aka ‘malt sugar’; glucose + glucose
Longer links of these molecules can form complex carbs, like pasta and bread.
Total Sugar vs Added Sugar
You may notice when looking at nutrition labels that there are ‘total sugars’ and ‘added sugars’ listed. Here, we will discuss the difference.
‘Added sugars’ refers to sugars that are added to foods or drinks during processing or preparation. Their function is to add sweetness. This also includes adding unrefined sugars to products – for example, honey. Sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda and juice, are the most popular source of added sugars in our diet.
‘Total Sugars’ refers to monosaccharides and disaccharides that are naturally found in foods plus any added sugars. Naturally occurring sugars are found in many food groups, like fruit and dairy products.
Sugar & Health
We don’t generally consume sugar by itself. It’s important to consider what else is found (or not found) in the foods you are eating to get a better idea of how it affects our health.
Naturally Occurring Sugars
Most foods with naturally occurring sugar (like dairy and fruit) also contain beneficial nutrients for our health. These nutrients can also help to slow digestion. This can help to lessen the effect on our blood sugar. For example:
- Fruits contain fiber and vitamins, like Vitamin C & Vitamin A
- Dairy contains protein and vitamins & minerals, like calcium
- Grains contain fiber and vitamins & minerals, like B Vitamins
Studies have shown that fruit has an anti-obesity effect when consumed regularly. Additionally, greater consumption of specific whole fruits is significantly associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Total sugars can be important for those with diabetes. While these sugars come from natural sources, they still affect our blood sugar levels. This does not mean those with diabetes shouldn’t eat fruit or dairy products. Rather, they need to consider how they fit in with their diabetes management plan.
You may have heard soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages referred to as ‘empty calories.’ This is because, while tasty, they generally lack any beneficial nutrients.
Studies have shown that consuming large amounts of added sugar can increase your risk of death from heart disease by 30%. Additionally, it can cause obesity. This can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. While this doesn’t mean you need to completely eliminate added sugars from your diet, you want to be mindful of the amount you are consuming daily.
So how much sugar can I eat?
There are no specific guidelines for how much total sugar you should eat. The World Health Organization and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 10% of daily calories should come from added sugars. For someone on a 2,000-calorie diet, this would mean aiming for about 50 grams or less of added sugar daily. This is about 12 teaspoons.
The WHO goes further to say an ideal goal is less than 5% of daily calories.
While sugary foods can be high in calories, foods with natural sugars (like fruit) can be beneficial for our health. It is important to limit our added sugar intake to less than 10% of our daily calories for overall health.