Sugar Rush: What Type of Sugar is Healthy?

sugar that is healthy for your body

We’ve all heard different things about sugar: that it’s bad for health, will lead to weight gain or increased hunger, and even that some kinds are better than others. So, can you eat sugar, and if so, what type should you be eating?

Sugar Metabolism

We’ll get into the different types of sugar below, but first, let’s talk about why you need it. Sugar is a carbohydrate which is one of the three macronutrients your body needs every day to run efficiently. When you eat anything with carbohydrates, your body breaks it down into glucose which is used as energy to fuel thousands of processes throughout your body. At the end of the day, your body will break down any kind of sugar into glucose to use it for energy, but not all sugars are created equal. Read to find out some of the differences!

Don’t Be Afraid of Natural Sugar!

There are two main types of sugar people eat – natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are, you guessed it, sugars that occur naturally in foods. This includes the sugar known as lactose found in dairy products as well as the sugars fructose, glucose, and sucrose (a combination of fructose and glucose) that is found in fruit and even some vegetables, like beets and potatoes. While there have been some reports that natural sugar should be limited, that’s actually not the case.

The types of food that have natural sugar also provide a multitude of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. For example, when you eat a piece of fruit, you are getting natural sugar plus vitamins, minerals, and fiber. You won’t find those vitamins, minerals, and fiber in some other foods with sugar, like soda. The fiber helps your body digest the sugar slowly, so when your body metabolizes the sugar to break it down into glucose, you get a smaller increase in blood sugar and are thus less likely to have a sugar crash later on. That’s why it’s important to incorporate these types of foods.

sugar in all different types of produce

Avoid Added Sugar

On the other hand, there are added sugars. This is any type of sugar that is added to food during baking, cooking, processing or blending. Carbonated soft drinks are the top source of added sugars, along with fruit drinks, flavored yogurt, cereal, cookies, and some processed foods like soup, bread, and ketchup. Here’s another reason to limit the number of sugary drinks.

While most are aware of the adverse health effects of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), recently, some “natural” sounding added sugars have been getting the spotlight, claiming that they are better alternatives to HFCS or even standard table sugar (sucrose). This is a marketing gimmick. The bottom line is that the current research doesn’t support that any added sugar is better than another.

See below for a list of common added sugars you may see in recipes or on labels:

Common added sugars:

  • Honey
  • Maple or malt syrup
  • Coconut sugar
  • Cane sugar or juice
  • Raw sugar
  • Molasses
  • Agave
  • Ingredients ending in “-ose”, like dextrose or fructose
  • Monk fruit
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Nectar
Honey as an alternative to healthy sugar
Photo by Arwin Neil Baichoo

The current recommendation is to keep daily added sugar intake to 10% of total calories. That’s because eating large amounts of added sugar has been shown to impact heart health, weight gain and type 2 diabetes.

For someone who eats 2000 calories in a day, that’s less than 50 grams per day or about 12 teaspoons. Unfortunately, the average American male eats about 24 teaspoons of added sugar every day. That’s twice the recommended amount!

However, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are being updated in 2020, and based on the current research, the recommendation for added sugar may be reduced from 10% of total calories to 6%. For someone who eats 2000 calories in a day, this is a decrease from 50 grams to 30 grams added sugar per day. For reference, a 12-ounce can of soda has about 40 grams of added sugar.

Bottom Line

Eating sugars found naturally in foods is not something you should worry about, but you should keep an eye on added sugars in foods you eat.

Sugar healthy in natural ingredients, watch out for added sugar
Photo by mali maeder

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