Sugar is everywhere these days, both in the media and in our food. It's currently the "villain du jour," having been the subject of several recent scientific studies, possibly linking sugar to inflammation, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a host of other ailments. Most of the research concentrates on added sugars, which are the kind of sugars that are added to foods versus naturally occurring sugars, such as the ones in fruit and milk.
However, as with all matters of nutrition, context is important. Sugar shouldn't be shunned altogether; rather looked at in context within the lifestyle and other dietary habits of the person.
To help you better understand the context of sugar in your diet, let's look at the role of sugar in your food, what else you are eating, and the quality of the carbohydrate you're consuming.
What role is added sugar playing in your food?
Most people today consume added sugar in two forms: high fructose corn syrup, which is a combination of fructose and glucose derived from corn; and sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar, which is a combination of glucose and fructose derived mostly from beets or sugar cane.
Other forms of sugars exist on the market -- coconut sugar, brown sugar, brown rice syrup, the list is exhaustive. Sugar obviously sweetens foods, mostly the ones you'd expect -- cakes, cookies, and pies; but it also has a functional role in foods as well. In breads, sugar helps with the rising process. Sometimes, sugar is added to foods for crispness or to help foods brown, and it can also function as a preservative.
In energy bars, sugar improves taste and provides quick energy for activity and recovery. In strenuous sports such as running races longer than 10K or long, difficult bike rides, sugar and other carbohydrates provide energy to continue with intensity. This is an example where sugar can be used with purpose. Sugar gets absorbed by our system faster than other carbohydrates so there is little lag time between consumption and effectiveness.
What is the rest of your diet like?
According to Stats Canada, the average person consumes 26 teaspoons of sugar a day. The American Heart Association is recommending an intake of five teaspoons a day for the average woman, and 9 teaspoons a day for the average man.
The stats show clearly that people are consuming too much sugar, but in a healthy, varied diet, there is room for all types of foods, including those that contain sugar. If your diet is mainly whole unprocessed foods, there is no reason not to have an added-sugar containing food occasionally. Portion-controlled, nutrient-dense foods can contain some added sugar and still be a good choice for snacks.
Balance is what's important when considering what a healthy diet consists of. While it's important to understand that consuming large amounts of added sugars can be detrimental to health, small to moderate amounts of added sugars should not cause any health issues for healthy individuals. It's important to consider as well the other nutrients in the foods that you are eating. Does the food have some sugar in it, but also qualities that are redeeming, such as added vitamins and minerals, protein and fiber? The inclusion of these nutrients also helps to slow the release of glucose into the blood, creating lasting energy vs the quick burn of food without protein and fiber. What other sugar-containing foods are you planning on eating that day? Have you or do you plan to be physically active to ensure a proper balance on energy intake and output?
Where is your sugar-containing food on the Glycemic Index (GI) scale?
Low glycemic means that you will have sustained energy instead of an energy spike and crash. Choosing lower GI foods will give your body a sustained release of carbohydrates for a steady supply of energy, without the blood sugar spikes and plummets associated with higher GI foods. Though sugar spikes will initially give you energy, you'll eventually crash, feeling tired and dazed.
The glycemic of a food is affected by several things. These include whether the food is solid or liquid, refined or less-refined, type of carbohydrate, and whether the food contains a mix of carbohydrate, fiber, protein, and fat to slow digestion and reduce the glycemic response of the body. Blood glucose will rise slowly after the consumption of a low GI food, rather than spiking quickly and then crashing. It is ideal to consume mostly low GI foods, and even those that contain some added sugar can still be low GI if they contain the correct mix of nutrients.
Reducing the total amount of processed foods should be the ultimate goal for everyone, not vilifying and blaming one single nutrient such as sugar for causing disease. Sugar can fit into a healthy diet, one that contains mostly unprocessed, fresh foods including fruit, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. It's a balance that individuals should strive for, not complete elimination of the villain du jour.
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