“Sugar is toxic and addictive!”
“Sugar turns directly into fat in the liver!”
“Sugar destroys your immune system and warps your brain chemistry!”
“Sugar causes massive insulin spikes that make you fatter and fatter!”
“Eat enough sugar you can wind up with Type 2 diabetes!”
These are just a few of the many damn near hysterical claims made against sugar.
If we’re to listen to mainstream “wisdom,” sugar is one of the worst things we can put in our bodies, and regular intake is up there with smoking and alcoholism as far as unhealthy habits go.
Well, whenever you hear such extreme statements made about anything, you should immediately be skeptical.
Sometimes rather alarming statements for or against certain types of supplements and foods pan out and are supported by good science, such as the benefits of creatine and the health issues surrounding regular trans fat intake, but more often than not, these extreme positions are based on flawed evidence and reasoning.
- Witness the “cult of clean eating“…
- Witness the ever-popular anti-carb dogmas…
- Witness the proponents of starvation diets…
- Witness the “I get all the protein I need from broccoli” crowd…
People have arrived at these positions by piling one incorrect assumption on another, slowly building dietary crosses they believe they have to bear for the rest of their lives.
Well, the “you can’t eat sugar if you want to be fit” crowd is just as deluded, and this article, we’ll discuss why.
And as a little disclaimer, I’m not going conclude by telling you that you can eat all the sugar you want and look and feel great. That isn’t true either. But as you’ll see, eating sugar, especially when part of a proper diet, just isn’t nearly as problematic as many people think.
So let’s start at the beginning with answering the question of what “sugar” really is…
- De-Mystifying the Heinous Sugar Molecule
- The Truth About "Good" and "Bad" Sugars
- Sugars Don't Make You Fat...Overeating Does
- Sugars Don't Ruin Your Health...Unless You Eat Like an Idiot and Refuse to Exercise
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup is Just More of the Same
- Sugars Aren't Addictive...Unless You Want Them to Be
Table of Contents
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“Sugar” has become a vague term encompassing all kinds of things, ranging from fruit to honey to candy.
Some people make distinctions between “natural” sugars such as those found in fruit and raw maple syrup and “processed” sugars such as table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. (And oftentimes these people will say the natural sugars are okay but the processed sugars are evil.)
So let’s get more specific here and shed some light on this mysterious chemical “sugar.”
First, all sugars are forms of carbohydrate, and their primary role in the body is energetic (the body uses them to produce cellular energy).
There are three forms of sugars:
Let’s look at each separately.
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Monosaccharides are often called simple sugars because they have a very simple structure. Mono means one and saccharide means sugar. So, one sugar.
The monosaccharides are…
Glucose is a type of sugar also known as blood sugar, which is found in our blood and produced from the food we eat (most dietary carbohydrates contain glucose, either as the sole form of sugar or combined with the other two simple sugars given above). When people talk about “blood sugar levels,” they’re talking about the amount of glucose floating around in the blood.
Fructose is a type of sugar naturally found in fruit, and also found in processed products like sucrose (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup, both of which are about 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Fructose is converted into glucose by the liver and then released into the blood for use.
Galactose is a type of sugar found in dairy products and it’s metabolized similarly to fructose.
Oligosaccharides are molecules that contain several monosaccharides linked together in chain-like structures. Oligos is Greek for a few, so a “few” sugars.
These sugars are one of the components of fiber found in plants, which our bodies are able to partially break down into glucose (leaving the fibrous, indigestible parts behind to do good things in our guts).
Many vegetables also contain fructo-oligosaccharides, which are short chains of fructose molecules. These are metabolized accordingly (the “chains” are broken and the individual fructose molecules are then converted into glucose for use).
Another common form of oligosaccharide that we eat is raffinose, which is comprised of a chain of galactose, glucose, and fructose (called a trisaccharide), and which can be found in beans, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli,asparagus, other vegetables, and whole grains.
Galactooligosaccharides round out the list of oligosaccharides, and are short chains of galactose molecules. These are indigestible but play a role in stimulating healthy bacteria growth in the gut.
Polysaccharides long chains of monosaccharides, usually containing ten or more monosaccharide units.
Starch (the energy stores of plants) and cellulose (a natural fiber found in many plants) are two examples of polysaccharides we often eat. Our bodies are able to easily break starches down into glucose, but not cellulose–it passes through our digestive system intact (thus, a source of dietary fiber).
There’s a Pattern Here…They All End Up as Glucose
You’ve probably already noticed this pattern, but I want to call attention to it because it’s very important for understanding the bigger picture.
All forms of carbohydrate we eat are either metabolized into glucose or are left indigested, serving as dietary fiber.
Our body can’t distinguish between the natural sugar found in fruit, honey or milk, and the processed sugar found in a Snickers bar. They’re all digested in the same way: they’re broken down into monosaccharides, which are then turned into glucose, which is then shipped off to the brain, muscles, and organs for use.
Yes, in the end, the candy bar turns into glucose just like the cup of peas. Sure, the candy bar turns into glucose faster, but that’s the only difference. The candy bar has a bunch of monosaccharides that are quickly metabolized whereas the peas have a bunch of oligosaccharides that take longer.
Now, I’m not saying peas = candy bars, so dump the veggies and bring on the Snickers. There’s more to this story, so let’s continue.
As you can see, it’s basically impossible to avoid sugars. Unless you follow a ketosis diet, you’re eating sugars every day in one form or another.
Most people know that the sugars found in fruit and vegetables aren’t harmful unless consumed in obscene, next-to-impossible amounts. Only the most nutritionally ignorant would argue that eating a few apples and servings of asparagus every day is going to harm your health.
Table sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup are heavily maligned, however. These are the molecules, we’re told, that cause obesity, dysfunction, and disease. These are the “added sugars” that we must avoid at all costs.
But, why exactly?
Chemically speaking, they’re pretty simple.
- Table sugar, or sucrose, is a disaccharide (two sugars) consisting of one part fructose and one part glucose.
Sucrose occurs in natural foods like pineapples, sweet potatoes, beets, sugar cane, and even walnuts, pecans, and cashews. It’s also added to foods to make them sweeter.
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is chemically similar, usually consisting of about 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
HFCS isn’t found in nature–it’s artificially produced–the only difference between it and sucrose is the fructose and glucose aren’t chemically bonded, which means the body has to do even less work to metabolize it into glucose.
Now, when viewed that way, neither seem all that nefarious.
The sucrose found in a pineapple is no different chemically than the sucrose in our favorite type of dessert. And high-fructose corn syrup is chemically similar to sucrose.
What’s the big deal, then? Why are we told that eating the sucrose in a pineapple is okay but the chemically identical sucrose in the chocolate bar is disastrous? Why is high-fructose corn syrup often vilified as the ultimate metabolic miscreant when it’s pretty dang similar to sucrose?
Well, these are good questions. And while it would take thousands of words to directly address all the myths out there surrounding sugar intake, let’s hone in on two areas you’re probably most interested in: your body fat percentage and health.
Do we get fatter and unhealthier with each and every gram of sucrose and HFCS that we consume?
Hi, I’m Mike and I eat hundreds of grams of sugars per day. I must have good genetics.
When things aren’t going our way in one area of life or another, we tend to look for scapegoats. We want something or someone to blame other than ourselves.
Sugar is that scapegoat for many. It’s about as popular a patsy as genetics. “I’m just fat because my body can’t process sugars,” they say.
Well, while it’s true that some people’s bodies do better with carbohydrate (all forms) than others, it’s simply not true that sucrose or even HFCS are especially fattening. As you now know, these two molecules just aren’t that special. They are just a source of glucose for the body like any other carbohydrate.
And in fact, carbohydrates (in all forms) aren’t stored as body fat as efficiently as dietary fats are. Yes, strictly speaking, olive oil is more fattening than table sugar.
What is especially fattening, then? Overeating. That is, feeding your body more energy than it needs every day, regardless of what foods are providing the excess energy.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look at some research.
In this study, researchers from The Sugar Bureau in the UK set out to determine if there should be a guideline for daily sugar consumption. They found that increased sugar intake was associated with leanness, not obesity, and concluded that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to warrant a quantitative guideline for sugar consumption.
This study, conducted by researchers at the University of Hawaii, is an extensive review of sugar-related literature. Here’s a quote from the paper:
“It is important to state at the outset that there is no direct connection between added sugars intake and obesity unless excessive consumption of sugar-containing beverages and foods leads to energy imbalance and the resultant weight gain.”
Overconsumption and energy imbalance are the keys here.
You see, it’s a known fact that over the past couple of decades Americans have been increasing the amount of calories they eat every day, and much of this increase is in the form of carbohydrates, primarily from soft drinks.
The more carbohydrates you eat, the more energy (calories) you put into your body. The more energy you give your body, the more energy you have to burn to prevent fat storage.
You see, if you give your body a lot more energy than it needs every day, whether from excess amounts of protein, carbohydrate, or dietary fat, you’ll get fatter. This has been conclusively proven in clinical research. There is no debating this fact.
And this is where we get to the actual problem with sugar intake and getting/staying fat: the more you eat foods with added sugars, the easier it is to overeat.
This is especially true of liquid carbohydrates, including beverages with added sugar. If you love caloric beverages, you’ll probably stay fat forever. You can drink 1,000 calories and be hungry an hour later, whereas eating 1,000 calories of food, including a good portion of protein and fiber, will probably keep you full for 5 to 6 hours.
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High, long-term intake of simple sugars (disaccharides like sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup) has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Many “experts” will use a factoid like that as definitive evidence that simple sugars ruin our health. But that’s misleading. There are other factors to consider.
One is the fact that the effects of these simple sugars varies greatly among individuals depending on how fat and active they are. Overweight, sedentary bodies don’t deal with simple sugars nearly as well as lean, physically active ones do.
Furthermore, when you mix carbohydrates (all forms) with other forms, the insulin response is mitigated. That is, eating a couple tablespoons of sucrose on an empty stomach causes a larger insulin reaction in the body than eating a couple tablespoons of sucrose as a part of a mixed meal (contained in a dessert, for example).
That said, even as part of a mixed meal, simple sugars still do elevate insulin levels higher than more complex forms of carbohydrate, such as the polysacchrides found in vegetables.
From this we can derive a sensible recommendation: if you’re overweight and don’t exercise, you shouldn’t be eating a bunch of simple sugars every day. You will be harming your health.
On the other hand, if you exercise regularly and aren’t overweight, your body can deal with simple sugars just fine. You’re not going to get diabetes or ruin your heart by eating a bit more sugar than necessary every day.
One other health-related concern is the fact that eating a lot of foods with added sugars can reduce the amount of micronutrients your body gets and thus cause deficiencies. Many foods with added sugars just don’t have much in the way of essential vitamins and minerals.
The solution here is obvious: get the majority of your daily calories from healthy (nutrient-dense) foods and you’ll be fine.
Personally, I never get more than 10% of my daily calories from added sugars simply because I cook my own meals and don’t have a sweet tooth. Considering how much micronutrient-dense food I eat and how much I exercise, this low level of sugar intake will never cause me any problems.
As you know, HFCS is chemically similar to sucrose. Yes, it has a bit more fructose, but this doesn’t make it particularly fattening like many people claim.
We’ve already gone over a lot so I won’t belabor this point. Instead, I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes. The first comes from an extensive review of HFCS literature published in 2008:
“Sucrose, HFCS, invert sugar, honey an many fruits and juices deliver the same sugars in the same ratios to the same tissues within the same time frame to the same metabolic pathways. Thus…it makes essentially no metabolic difference which one is used.”
Here’s one from an HFCS literature review published in 2007:
“Based on the currently available evidence, the expert panel concluded that HFCS does not appear to contribute to overweight and obesity any differently than do other energy sources.”
And yet another from yet another literature review published in 2008:
“The data presented indicated that HFCS is very similar to sucrose, being about 55% fructose and 45% glucose, and thus, not surprisingly, few metabolic differences were found comparing HFCS and sucrose. That said, HFCS does contribute to added sugars and calories, and those concerned with managing their weight should be concerned about calories from beverages and other foods, regardless of HFCS content.”
The bottom line is HFCS is just another simple sugar, and as far as we can currently tell, it can only harm us when over-consumed.
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I don’t know how many times I’ve had people chalk up their lack of dietary willpower as “addiction.” They’re just “addicted” to the junk food. It’s not their fault.
Well…no. They’re just weak willed.
Chemically speaking, sugar doesn’t cause physical addiction like drugs do. Yes, it can make you feel good, but so can eating many other types of food or sailing a boat or winning a prize or kissing a girl. Our pursuit of pleasure is not equal to physical addiction.
I like sugars as much as the next person. I eat plenty naturally occurring sugars every day and a bit of added sugar as well. I never have to fight with myself to stop eating or randomly binge myself into despair.
Because I have willpower and discipline, and I take responsibility for my actions. I know when enough is enough and I don’t “bargain” with myself.
In my experience, people that feel “addicted” to food, sugar, video games, or anything else unhealthy in large amounts are just struggling with mental barriers. They lack the ability to control their actions and, in many cases, this is evidenced in other areas of their lives.
I don’t want to dive into the psychology of addiction here, but I do want to press one message home:
If you’ve been using “physical addiction” as an excuse to chronically overeat, whether with sugar or just food in general, stop bullshitting yourself and get your shit together.
Work out a proper meal plan and stick to it. Stay away from sweets if you know that one taste sends you into a frenzy. Over time, you’ll chill out and be okay with having a little bit here and there.
Make a real decision and take real actions to get your “addiction” under control, and you’ll no longer struggle with it.
What’s your take on these sugar facts? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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- Forshee RA, Storey ML, Allison DB, et al. A critical examination of the evidence relating high fructose corn syrup and weight gain. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2007;47(6):561-582. doi:10.1080/10408390600846457
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