We all know that eating too much sugar is linked with obesity, metabolic & cardiovascular disease, diabetes and a range of other conditions. But what makes it such a problematic food to consume? Well, to make it really black and white, sugar can cause inflammation, and inflammation causes chronic disease.
But! Like with everything there needs to be context and some nuance considered, because not all sugar is created equally. Let’s start off with the question – what is sugar?
Well along with starches (potatoes, breads, pasta etc) & cellulose (plants), sugars are a category of carbohydrates.
If we’re talking simple sugars, then we’re referring to either glucose, fructose or galactose, which are monosaccharides (one molecule carbohydrates) hence ‘simple’.
Some people associate sugar with Sucrose (table sugar), which is a disaccharide (2-molecule carbohydrate) made up from fructose + glucose. Lactose is also a disaccharide & a combination of glucose + galactose.
Polysaccharides are our starches, glycogen, and cellulose. They’re made up of many monosaccharides, from 10 to 100+. These are essentially glucose chains.
So essentially sugar is a carbohydrate source, that our body primarily uses for energy (cellulose however is fibre & used for bowel function, that’s another topic!)
‘Good’ VS ‘Bad’ sugar
Now I don’t like labelling foods good and bad but when it comes to sugar there is most definitely a good kind & a bad kind. I don’t think this is a new concept.
Refined sugar is basically sucrose (aka table sugar, the white/brown granules we get in packets) and is extracted & processed from sugar beet & canes.
The reason refined sugar, which is found in most processed foods like chocolate, cakes, pastries etc, is considered ‘bad’ in comparison to its more natural cousins’ fructose & lactose, is because of how our body digests & reacts to it.
When we consume refined sugar our body digests it super quickly, so it consequently enters our blood system very quickly. This results in a spike in our blood sugar levels which results in a spike in our insulin levels. I hope you’re beginning to see how everything in our body is connected and behaves like dominoes tipping.
Having high blood sugar and insulin levels is not good – because what goes up must come down, and this is where you enter a volatile yo-yo cycle of sugar highs and sugar lows. Cue the jittery feeling when it’s high and the irritable tired feeling when it’s down. Our body wants to be in homeostasis, not on a rollercoaster ride.
Aside from contributing to obesity, consuming refined sugar regularly can also result in a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that essentially acts as a key, opening up your cell’s doors so glucose can enter and provide energy. When too much sugar (glucose) is in the blood for a long period of time, the key stops turning, it gets stuck and consequently the doors stop opening. Our cells develop resistance to the insulin.
Blood sugar levels remain high, because glucose isn’t allowed to enter our cells, our pancreas reacts to this by pumping out more and more insulin, desperately trying to open our cell’s doors, and we end up with type 2 diabetes because our pancreas just can’t keep up with the high demand for insulin. Poor thing.
This is why it’s so important to keep the amount of refined sugar you consume to a minimum. We want your blood sugar levels stable 99.99% of the time for health & longevity.
I refer to naturally occurring sugars, the ones found in fruit, vegetables, grains & dairy when I say ‘good sugars’. These are broken down by our bodies slower than refined sugars, & consequently enter our blood at a more stable rate, avoiding that previously mentioned yo-yo cycle. They also contain vitamins & minerals that our bodies need. Refined sugar is literally just glucose & energy, it has no other benefit/nutrients to offer.
Fruit & vegetables will also be accompanied by cellulose, aka fibre, which further slows down digestion & the movement of sugar into our system. It might seem odd to refer to ‘slow’ being favourable, but we need to give our gastrointestinal tract time to properly digest & absorb our food to get the most out of it. That’s not to say we want sluggish digestion, that’s another issue in itself!
Starchy carbohydrates are not bad, so I’m sticking them in the good category, but they are often abused in our modern diets. Like with everything moderation is key, so if you’re eating bread, pasta, potatoes etc all the time, you can still get insulin resistance & still store excess weight as a result (it would be very hard for you to overeat broccoli for example, which is still technically a sugar/carb source, however overeating bread is pretty easy peasy haha).
Also worth noting that planning a quick sugar hit is ok around training because your body will be using the sugar to fuel your muscles etc, instead of it being sat in your tissues as storage & contributing to fat.
Examples of foods that contain bad sugar:
Chocolate, cakes, jam, ice cream, table sugar of any kind including granulated sugar, demerara sugar, brown sugar (light & dark), pastries, fizzy drinks, fruit juices, alcohol
Examples of foods that contain good sugar:
All fruit, cheese, milk, yoghurt, vegetables including root veg, wholemeal bread (white bread is often sweetened with sucrose), pasta, rice, whole-grains like brown rice and quinoa, legumes
That’s obviously not an exhaustive list but hopefully gives you an idea!
Moral of the story is that for optimum health and wellness you need to limit the amount of refined and simple sugar in your diet, or at least time it well around exercise. With my clients I promote the 80/20 rule – 80% of your diet is nutritionally dense and whole food based (single ingredient items) so that 20% of the time you can eat more of what you fancy (because let’s be honest, life is for living and who doesn’t love an almond croissant!) and it not impact your health negatively.
If you want to work with me on Nutrition just head over to this calendar to book in for a no-pressure chat.