Eating a diet high in sugar and processed foods can actually weaken your immune system and increase the risk of chronic diseases like obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and overall metabolic dysfunction. With so many different types of sugars (natural and artificial), which one is best for us? Let’s break this down by taking a closer look at the nutrition of sugars and what current studies are showing.
Sugar comes in two forms: those naturally occurring in whole foods and added sugars in processed foods. Eating too much of any type of sugar can become a problem, but added sugars can be far more detrimental. Three out of every four packaged food and drink products – 74%, to be exact – contain added sugar.
Foods high in added sugars contain few if any nutrients, but they can also deplete nutrients from other foods and our bodies. The biochemical pathway that allows for food to be converted into energy requires micronutrients that serve as cofactors for this process. Essentially, this means that we need certain vitamins and minerals to help convert our food into usable energy. Therefore, consuming foods high in sugar with little to no nutrition leads to a deficit in vitamin and mineral cofactors used for the oxidation of sugar itself.
By adding more whole food ingredients to your diet, you’re not only curbing your added sugar intake, but you’re also providing your cells with targeted information through phytochemicals and nutrients that will help properly regulate your immune function!
Forms of Sugars
So, we talked about forms of sugars. Let’s talk about the two types: simple and complex. Simple sugars include glucose, fructose, and galactose. These are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, and can also be found in added sugars. Confused yet? Stay with me! Glucose and fructose are broken down in the body differently, so in theory, consuming one over the other could lead to differences in metabolic health.
For example, glucose is absorbed from the intestine into the blood and is taken up into your muscle, liver, and fat cells after insulin is released from the pancreas. In contrast, fructose is metabolized in the liver and does not increase blood glucose or insulin levels. Since glucose and fructose travel together in the foods and beverages we consume, we need to consider their effects when they work in tandem.
Compound sugars are made up of two molecules of simple sugars. Sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose and is found in fruits, vegetables, and plants. Sucrose is the compound extracted to create granulated sugar (table sugar). When sugar occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, and dairy, it is eaten with all the other nutrients that are good for you, including fiber that helps slow the rate of digestion. This means that in addition to the nutritional benefit, your blood sugar levels don’t spike and the sugar is less likely to be stored as fat.
Glucose cannot enter your cells all by itself. Your body needs insulin to process glucose. In simple terms, insulin is a hormone that tells the cells in your body to absorb glucose from your bloodstream. Your cells then burn this glucose to produce energy. When you’re eating regularly and your organs are working properly, your blood sugar levels typically remain consistent. A healthy person has neither too much blood sugar (hyperglycemia) nor too little blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
Comparing Types of Sugar
You may have heard various claims about maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, agave, or molasses being better for you than table sugar. Like white sugar, they are also made up of varying amounts of sucrose, glucose, and fructose. Some of them are metabolized slower than table sugar, so your blood sugar level won’t spike as much (this is why we look at the glycemic index). They are also less processed and closer to their natural form, so they retain other nutrients that are good for you. However, no matter what advantages they have over white sugar, they are still primarily made up of sugars and need to be consumed in very limited quantities.
Sugars from sugarcane or sugar beets are made up of monosaccharides. 50% glucose and 50% fructose bond together to create the disaccharide sucrose, also known as sugar. Beet sugar has a glycemic index of 64. To compare, pure glucose has a GI of 100. This means that after glucose hits the bloodstream, there is a greater rise in the blood glucose level two hours after consuming that food.
Honey is the rich sugar nectar collected by bees and is composed of roughly 38% fructose, 31% glucose, 17% water, and 7% maltose, in addition to small amounts of other simple carbohydrates, pollen, and nutrients. Per 100 grams, table sugar provides 100 grams of sugar, while honey provides 82.4 grams of sugar. This difference is due in large part to the fact that sugar is 100% sucrose, while honey has higher water content. Honey has a GI of 50, similar to table sugar.
Research has shown that raw, unpasteurized honey can kill unwanted bacteria and fungi, as it contains hydrogen peroxide, a natural antiseptic. Certain forms of honey have been shown to support wound healing and treat minor burns, skin irritations like psoriasis, and even the common cold. Moreover, raw, unpasteurized honey contains trace amounts of local pollen, which some experts claim may help to desensitize seasonal allergic reactions.
While people often choose artificial sweeteners to lose weight or cut down on calorie intake, research has found that artificial sweeteners may enhance sugar cravings even more. Simply replacing your sugary beverages with diet versions may not give you the positive health outcomes you’re looking for. One observational study found that diet soda consumption was associated with a 36% greater risk of metabolic syndrome and 67% higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
A review of 35 observational studies published in 2019 in the BMJ found that using sugar substitutes rarely resulted in beneficial health outcomes. Some participants lost weight and others improved fasting blood glucose numbers, but overall, their body mass index (BMI) improvements weren’t significant. Suffice it to say, diet isn’t always better.
From the Dietitian
Stevia is a natural sugar that has been proven to have quite a few health benefits. Research on stevia suggests it may play a role in protecting against some cancers. Separately, stevia may improve some biochemical parameters like fasting blood sugar in people with chronic kidney disease, as suggested by a study published in Contemporary Clinical Trials Communications.
Outside of pure stevia, I recommend using either raw honey or pure maple syrup. These sugars are not processed and they contain trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. At the end of the day, it is important to understand what sugar is doing to your body. Food is information! Sugar hits our bloodstream pretty quickly, and it affects the liver, heart, adrenals, and hormones. Too much sugar of any kind will lead to inflammation and a higher risk of diseases. With this in mind, if you are going to eat some sugar, it is best to choose natural sugars. But remember, using natural sugars is not that much healthier than other sugar (it’s still sugar!).
To trick your mind into feeling satisfied by a sweet taste, try making recipes with foods that are naturally sweet. This way, you can still feel like you’re enjoying sweets every day. All of the foods below contain natural sugars or compounds that provide a sweet taste. These foods in combination with healthy carbs, proteins, and fats will help control blood sugars and reduce those cravings for added sugars.
Naturally Sweet Foods
- Fruit: Berries, melons, mangos, bananas, apples, apricots, peaches, plums, pears, kiwis, and papayas
- Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, yams, beets, and winter squash
- Nuts: Cashews, pistachios, macadamia nuts, coconut, and pecans
- Spices: Cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg
- Extracts: Vanilla, almond, and hazelnut
Try these recipes with naturally sweet foods:
- Fruit with Coconut Butter
- Mango Delight Dessert
- Cinnamon Roasted Sweet Potatoes
- Roasted Beets with Balsamic Glaze
- Kale Salad with Pecan Vinaigrette
- Nuts and Seeds Trail Mix
If you’re interested in adjusting your diet, the YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »
—Mattie Lefever, LDN, RDN