Yes, there are ways to eat sugar healthfully. Experts explain how. (GIF: Getty Images/Priscilla De Castro for Yahoo Health)
Sugar has a bad rep for good reason: It’s a major culprit in our country’s biggest health problems. Too much of the stuff is linked to everything from root canals and mood swings to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
In fact, in March, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended we reduce our intake of free sugars (meaning sugar added to food and drinks, as well as sugar naturally present in fruit juices, honey, and syrups) to less than 10 percent of our total energy intake. And reducing intake to below 5 percent — about 25 grams (or six teaspoons) a day — would be even better for our health.
What is sugar, to begin with? It’s one of three main types of carbohydrate (the other two being fiber and starches, or complex carbohydrates). The types of sugar include glucose (an energy source that fuels the brain and body, and is made when the body processes most carbohydrate foods), fructose (which is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, and can also be added to foods), and sucrose (also known as table sugar, and is made from fructose and glucose).
“We don’t need sugar to function, but we need complex carbohydrates — through whole grains, some vegetables, and legumes — in order to fuel our brain,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, tells Yahoo Health. Without carbs, negative effects — such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and even a life-threatening condition called ketoacidosis — can occur.
But sugar, when consumed in the form of “bad for you” food, is not a necessary part of our diet at all, she says.
Sugar can be found naturally in foods — like fructose in fruit and lactose in milk — or it can be added when food is prepared or processed (hence the term “added sugar”). Food manufacturers may add natural sugars, like fructose and lactose (but these are not naturally occurring), and processed sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup, to foods, explains nutritionist Keri Glassman, founder of Nutritious Life.
Take yogurt, for example. Depending on which kind you buy, there can be added sugar. But the form of sugar that is naturally present in yogurt is lactose. Meanwhile, “a natural sugar like honey can be turned into an added sugar if it’s added to crackers,” Kirkpatrick says.
The problem with all kinds of sugar — no matter where it comes from — is that after years of eating too much of it, insulin (a hormone that allows your body to use sugar as energy) becomes tired, Glassman explains. This can ultimately lead to insulin impairment or resistance, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, she says.
And that’s why you shouldn’t necessarily believe a food is healthy just because its label says it contains a “natural” sugar: “Sugar is sugar regardless, of how sexy it’s packaged,” Kirkpatrick says. “When consumed in excess, it can cause plenty of problems in our body.”
But is it possible to eat the sweet stuff in a healthy way? Beyond steering clear of the obvious culprits — syrups, cookies, and sweet pastries like doughnuts (double trouble for your heart because they’re usually fried in trans fats, says Kirkpatrick) — there are some basic rules to follow if you want to eat sugar smartly:
Pair sugars with fiber. Never, ever eat sugar alone — always have it paired, says Kirkpatrick. For example, have an orange and a few almonds, and not just an orange, because nuts have more fiber than the orange alone. “This will help slow absorption of sugar into the bloodstream,” Kirkpatrick says.
Why that matters: When something high in sugar is consumed, it increases levels of blood sugar and insulin, with higher sugar contents leading to higher spikes in insulin. Extreme ups and downs in insulin and blood sugar increase inflammatory factors in the body, which can lead to disease. But when sugar is more slowly absorbed into the bloodstream, it leads to more of a “hump” than a spike — which is a good thing.
Here’s why fiber is so vital in slowing that blood sugar spike: Soluble fiber, found in foods such as apples and pears, slows down gastric emptying — your stomach emptying food into the intestines, says Kirkpatrick. Think of it as the two — both fiber and sugar — having to compete to be digested. Your body needs to process the indigestible food, fiber, first, which takes some effort, thereby lessening the blood-sugar spike, she says.
Choose produce for your sugar source. Produce is packed with fiber and brings more of a nutritional bang as well. Fruits and vegetables have sugar in them, but also offer vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, says Glassman. Sweet potatoes are complex carbohydrates that have beta carotene and lots of fiber. Apples have both soluble and insoluble fiber, and a lot of health benefits for one fruit, Kirkpatrick adds. Plus, apples are low on the glycemic index — which indicates how high your blood sugar rises when you eat a food. (Pears are low on the index, too, whereas watermelon and bananas are high.)
Don’t count dairy out. Lactose is a simple sugar found in dairy, and “has a minimal effect on blood sugar,” says Kirkpatrick. That’s why you should opt for string cheese over a cheese Danish, as added sugars from the refined grains can have a greater effect on blood sugar. A bonus: Cheese also has protein to keep you full and satisfied. “Plain yogurt is also an option — you are getting calcium, protein, and probiotics,” adds Glassman.
Eat, don’t drink, your sugar. Nothing good comes from drinking soda. “Never, ever drink your sugar,” says Kirkpatrick. Not only are you imbibing extra, empty calories, but you could be putting yourself at risk for health disasters down the road. And get this: A study from UC Davis found that even drinks sweetened with low amounts of high-fructose corn syrup can up your risk for heart disease. Reducing your risk of health problems could be as simple as stopping the habit: One study in the journal Diabetologia found that drinking one less sugary drink a day is linked to a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.
If you must sweeten, sweeten with honey. Can’t quite sip your tea unsweetened? Reach for a little bit of honey over straight table sugar. While honey is mostly sugar, you are also getting minerals and antibacterial benefits as well as antioxidants, says Glassman. These perks are absent in the straight white stuff.
Read This Next: 20 Foods That Are Sugar Bombs
Have a personal health story to share? We want to hear it. Tell us at YHTrueStories@yahoo.com.