While we can all agree that sugar isn’t exactly a health food, there’s a lot of misinformation about how sweet stuff should factor into your diet — if at all. For instance, are some types of sugar healthier than others? And will cutting it out really put you on the fast track to losing weight, easing acne, staving off mood swings, or any other health woes?
Turns out, the answers might not be what you think. Here’s a look at eight things even nutrition-savvy people may not realize about sugar — and what you should know about fitting it into your diet.
1. ‘All sugar is bad sugar.’
You’ve probably heard over and over again about how we should all be eating less sugar. But what experts really mean is that we should be eating less added sugar. That’s the additional sugar in foods to make them taste sweet(er) — like the brown sugar in chocolate chip cookies or the honey you drizzle on your yogurt.
Added sugar is different than the sugar that occurs naturally in some foods, like fruit or milk. For one, natural sugar comes with a package of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that help offset some of the negative aspects of the sugar content, explains Georgie Fear, RD, author of “Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss.” For instance, fruit has fiber that causes our body to absorb sugar at a slower rate.
The takeaway? Don’t worry about things like whole fruit or plain dairy (like milk or unsweetened yogurt). Sources of added sugar — desserts, sugary drinks, or packaged foods — are the things you need to keep an eye on.
Sugar vs. SUGARThere’s also the fact that foods with naturally occurring sugar tend to contain less sugar overall. For instance, you’ll get 7 grams of sugar in a cup of fresh strawberries, but 11 grams of sugar in a pouch of strawberry-flavored fruit snacks.
2. ‘Minimally processed or natural sugars are better for you.’
It’s true that minimally processed sweeteners, like honey or maple syrup, contain more nutrients than highly processed ones, like white sugar. But the amounts of these nutrients are teeny tiny, so they probably won’t have a measurable impact on your health. To your body, all sources of sugar are the same.
What’s more, these natural sweeteners don’t get any kind of special treatment in your body. The digestive tract breaks down all sources of sugar into simple sugars called monosaccharides.
“Your body has no idea if it came from table sugar, honey, or agave nectar. It simply sees monosaccharide sugar molecules,” explains Amy Goodson, MS, RD. And all of these sugars deliver 4 calories per gram, so they all have the same impact on your weight.
3. ‘You should cut out sugar from your life completely.’
You don’t need to cut added sugar out of your life completely. Different health organizations have different recommendations for the amount of sugar you should limit yourself per day. But they all agree that there’s room for some sugar in a healthy diet.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines say that an adult eating 2,000 calories per day should have less than 12.5 teaspoons, or 50 grams, of added sugar daily. (That’s roughly the amount in a 16-ounce cola.) But the American Heart Association says women should have less than 6 teaspoons (25 grams), and men should have less than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) per day.
Ultimately, your body doesn’t need sugar. So having less is better, says Fear. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have any at all, though. It’s all about — you guessed it — moderation.
4. ‘It’s impossible to avoid sugar.’
A whopping 75 percent of Americans eat more sugar than they should, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Not sure whether you’re one of them? Try logging your food intake in a food-tracking app for a few days. That can give you a sense of how much sweet stuff you’re actually eating and make it easier to eat less added sugar.
If you’re overdoing it, cutting back doesn’t have to be painful. Instead of swearing off your favorite sweet treats, try having smaller portions. “After all, there are half as many grams of sugar in half a cup of ice cream compared to a whole cup,” Fear says.
Keep an eye on packaged foods, too. Things like bread, flavored yogurt, cereal, and even tomato sauce can all have more added sugar than you might expect. So pay attention to nutrition labels and look for options that’ll help you stay within your daily sugar limit.
5. ‘Sugar is making you sick.’
Maybe you’ve heard that eating sugar will give you heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or cancer. But eating sugar in moderation isn’t going to shave years off your life. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study that followed more than 350,000 adults for over a decade found that added sugar consumption was not linked to an increased risk for death.
As long as you don’t overdo it.
While a moderate amount of sugar doesn’t seem to be harmful, having too much can put you at risk for gaining weight. But so can having too many potato chips, too much cheese, or even too much brown rice.
“Excess total calories in our diets, including those from sugar, contribute to weight gain, which could lead to obesity and the possibility of the onset of chronic disease,” explains Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation.
The bottom line? Treating yourself to a doughnut on Sunday mornings won’t hurt. But if you know it’ll trigger you to eat several doughnuts and send you over your daily calorie limit, you might want to steer clear. In the same vein, don’t use this fact to push someone to eat sugar when they don’t want to.
6. ‘Sugar is a drug and an addiction.’
“Comparing sugar to drugs of abuse is a simplistic short-cut,” says Giuseppe Gangarossa, PhD, for PLOS. Experts know that eating sugar stimulates pathways in the brain that are associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. The overlapping paths may produce effects similar to substance use, but that doesn’t make them addictive like drugs, explains Ali Webster, RD, PhD, associate director of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation.
So why do some people get such a rush when they eat sugary snacks and feel like they need a regular fix to keep from crashing? Eating the sweet stuff causes your blood sugar to spike and quickly drop, which can leave you tired and with a headache. “This often leaves people looking for more sugar to stabilize their blood sugar and help them feel better,” Goodson explains.
The comparison of sugar and drugs continues to be debated. A recent European Journal of Nutrition analysis found little evidence to support the idea that sugar actually has addictive, druglike properties. Scientific American also noted that changing our food environment can help mitigate these cravings. By staying committed to avoiding added sugars at home, like breakfast pastries, quick cereals, or loaded yogurts, you may find less cravings for sweets when ordering out.
On using the word addictionPeople may crave sugar, but it’s unlikely the average person is addicted. Addiction is a serious medical condition based on actual brain changes that make it difficult for people to stop the use of a drug. Casually comparing sugar to drugs makes light of addiction.
7. ‘Sugar-free replacements are a good alternative.’
It might be tempting to trade sugary foods for ones made with low- or no-calorie sweeteners, like diet soda or sugar-free cookies. But making that swap could backfire and isn’t likely to be healthier.
Consumption of sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are linked to weight gain, not weight loss, according to an analysis of 37 studies published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. What’s more, they were tied to a higher risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart attacks, and stroke.
Experts still don’t fully understand how these types of sweeteners affect the body. But mounting evidence suggests that they can have a negative impact on blood sugar, make it harder to keep your appetite in check, and even mess with your gut bacteria. And those things could put you at risk for obesity and related health problems.
8. ‘Going on a low- or no-sugar diet will help you lose weight.’
Sure, limiting your sugar intake can help you reach your weight loss goals. But only if you’re also mindful of your overall calorie intake. “It’s very easy to swap sugary foods for other foods that actually pack more calories, which can lead to weight gain,” Fear says, pointing out that a low- or no-sugar diet can’t guarantee weight loss.
In other words, having a 600-calorie egg and sausage breakfast sandwich instead of your usual 300-calorie bowl of sugary cereal won’t get you back into your skinny jeans, even if the sandwich is much lower in sugar.
What will help? Choosing unsweetened versions of the foods you normally consume, like plain yogurt instead of vanilla, Fear recommends. And if you can’t find a good replacement? Gradually cut back on the amount of sugar you add to foods like oatmeal, coffee, or smoothies.
In consideration of sugar
Sugar isn’t a health food, but it’s also not the evil poison that it’s sometimes made out to be. While most of us could stand to have less of it, it’s perfectly fine to have a little bit. So go ahead and enjoy the occasional sweet treat — without a side of guilt.
Marygrace Taylor is a health and wellness writer whose work has appeared in Parade, Prevention, Redbook, Glamour, Women’s Health, and others. Visit her at marygracetaylor.com.