• All About Sugar

    “Sugar is not just an empty calorie, its effect on us is much more insidious”, says Robert Lustig, a childhood obesity expert at University of California, San Francisco. “It’s a poison by itself,” and “the most demonized additive known to man."

    This public insistence, backed by Lustig’s impressive credentials, makes the decision to ‘eat sugar or not’ a tricky one. We've all heard that ‘sugar makes you fat and leads to cavities’ but is sugar really that bad? Are ‘all sugars’ necessarily off limits? Do we need to stop baking birthday cakes, sprinkling sugar on coffee, or gifting chocolates to loved ones? That’s a lot of questions. Some research-based understanding of sugar science may clear things up - beginning with what is sugar and what our body actually does with it. Then we will look at their benefits and hazards of the demonized carb.

    What is it?

    While the term ‘sugar’ refers to ‘sucrose,’ the most abundant sugar found in the nature, the term ‘sugars’ includes sucrose (table sugar) along with other sugars such as glucose, fructose, and lactose. No matter the kind of sugar, it falls under general category of carbohydrate, and, in turn, provides four calories per gram. All carbohydrates end up as sugar when digested. Grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, sweets, colas, and baked goods are all different sources of carbohydrates, but their effect on our health depends on their status as simple or complex. Sugars are the simplest forms of carbohydrates (referred to as simple carbs). Starches and fiber, containing more than three sugar units bonded together are described as ‘complex carbs.' Complex carbohydrates, present in fruits, vegetables, oats, whole grains, and beans take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates and are thus the better carbs to be included in diet - helping regulate sugar levels in the body.

    Crucial for Energy

    Despite its bad reputation, sugar is a crucial source of energy. What needs to be clarified is that carbs are essentially sugars. When we eat a food containing sugar (such as fruits, rice, or cookies), our body breaks down the sugar into glucose molecules. The glucose is then transferred to our cells where they are converted to a chemical, ATP or adenosine triphosphate in a process called Krebs cycle. This ATP fuels our brain and helps us carry out our daily activities. Although this process is true for all kinds of sugar, the usefulness to our bodies of each particular sugar is what makes the difference. A complex carb like a sweet potato provides much more value to your body than the same amount of calories from a simple carb like white bread. Choosing the right type (complex carbs) and amount of sugar in a diet is essential for achieving peak efficiency during a workout and also to improve endurance, athletic performance, and muscular strength. If we don’t eat enough carbohydrates, the glucose level in our blood will drop, and we will experience lethargy, cramps, headache, and reduced brain activity. Eating too much is also detrimental to our overall health.

    Different Types

    • Monosaccharide: The three most common monosaccharides or simple sugars are glucose (the simplest sugar unit), fructose (as in fruits and honey), and galactose (milk sugar).
    • Disaccharides: Disaccharides consist of two monosaccharide units joined together. They are sucrose (formed by combination of glucose and fructose molecules and present in sugar cane and beets), lactose (milk sugar containing glucose and galactose), and maltose (present in cereals like barley and made up of two glucose molecules).
    • Polysaccharides: Consisting of many monosaccharide units joined together, the poly sugars are valuable to our digestive health and important sources of ‘roughage’ in our diet. They are insoluble in water and help to support growth of ‘friendly bacteria’ in the colon. The main categories are:
      • Starch (as in potatoes, beans and cereals) - plants store glucose in the form of starch
      • Cellulose (long chain of glucose, indigestible by our bodies) - plants are made up of cellulose, aka fiber
      • Glycogen (stored form of glucose)

    Overconsumption Leads to Health Problems

    Excess intake of sugar contributes to obesity. Scientific studies report that high blood sugar due to overconsumption of foods containing sugars leads to the increased storage of fat. The second problem has to do with the blood sugar regulation mechanisms in our bodies. Eating high sugar meals lead to an increased need for release of insulin in the body. This perpetually high amount of insulin results in a condition called ‘insulin insensitivity,’ which acts as a precursor for various metabolic disorders, diabetes, and their related complications. [caption id="attachment_5178" align="alignright" width="189"]Another problem with sugar is its effect on the cardio vascular system. “There’s an association between added sugar intake and higher triglycerides and lower HDL good cholesterol," says Johnson, RD and nutrition professor at Vermont University. Excess sugar combines with proteins in the body and forms glycated proteins. These glycated proteins cause havoc across the body systems by destroying blood vessels and hindering the regular flow of oxygen and nutrients across vital organs and body parts.

    The Bottom Line

    Eating fresh fruits is a much better way to give in to your sweet tooth, as it provides you with fiber, an array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants without many calories. Remember, humans have a natural craving for sweets, but that craving was intended for foods like fruits not Twinkies. Not all sugars are bad. We need to simply watch the portion sizes, check the quality and frequency of sugar foods in our diet, and choose the ‘nutritionally enriching’ sources over the 'nutritionally empty’ ones.

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